Swooping into the office of the Great Golden Drake unannounced was considered unwise at the very least, but Tenchii didn’t have the time or state of mind to consider much of anything. She landed on the diagram the gigantic dragon was analyzing, causing him to jerk his head back. Then he scowled.
“I don’t appreciate this, General.
Your intrusion had best be important.”
“Sir, I must ask you to rethink your decision regarding Astia.” She had intended to make her voice sound practical, but once she began speaking, the words wouldn’t stop. “She’s one of the most skilled soldiers the army has ever seen. Even if she can no longer participate in aerial combat, there are still plenty of ways she can be useful. To throw away her life like this would be to waste a- an invaluable asset-”
“A flightless soldier is a dead soldier,” the Drake hissed.
“Besides, Wing-ed soldiers must fly to fight.
“It’s the definition of who we are.”
“I’ve given you reports on her; you know how well she’s done, how well she can still do,” Tenchii insisted. “And the most important part of this army should be its cause. A Winged who sacrifices their gift for that cause is no less one of us for it; if anything, they are more.” Her voice broke on the last word, echoing in the cavernous room.
The Drake paused, then leaned so close that she could feel his breath ruffle her fur. Its warmth didn’t stop a shudder from running down her spine.
“She fought for the cause; now she dies for it.
That is what every Wing-ed should do.
I will not tolerate weakness, Tenchii.
Not from flightless soldiers… and not from you.”
She stiffened, realizing the cold-blooded understanding in his eyes. He knew. He knew, so he wouldn’t listen. She dropped her head, then turned the movement into a shaky bow. “Yes, sir. I understand.”
“There has to be a way out of this, there has to be-”
“Tenchii, enough.” Astia lay on Tenchii’s bed, immobile and swathed in bandages, but her voice stopped Tenchii’s pacing all the same. “Panic isn’t going to solve anything. We should just… value the time we have left.”
“I’m not losing you, Astia!” She lashed her tail and raked her claws on the stone floor. “I’ll find the right words, I’ll convince him to give you reprieve, or delay it, or- or something-”
“There is nothing we can do, Tenchii.” The two cats stared at one another in silence. Astia’s eyes were not meant for such resignation. “I die at sundown. Like any honorable Winged would.”
Tenchii walked to her mate’s good side, lay down, and buried her face in her striped fur. “I-I… I can’t… I can’t do this, Astia, I-- this isn’t-- I’m not-”
“Shhh,” Astia whispered. She covered her mate with her good wing and purred; not contentment, but attempted comfort. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
There was nothing else to say.
Tenchii’s view was too close and too far away. She couldn’t watch, but she had to. She shouldn’t, yet she couldn’t tear her eyes away.
Before the Drake, Astia looked so small.
“This animal has lost her gift of flight
And so she can no longer serve this cause.
Therefore, the time has come to send her off
So that we may continue and be strong.”
At the sound of her… of it, Tenchii’s body numbed.
It was over.
Tenchii wasn’t sure what her aim had been when she’d flown straight for Magic-Touched territory in the dead of night, but this… she never could have imagined this.
“You’re… Winged,” she murmured to the scarred and scowling lynx, peering at the stumps where wings had once grown. “But… how it the world did you survive that?”
“It’s not your business,” the lynx snarled. “And I’m not one of you anymore. You would’ve let me die. It’s the Magic-Touched who saved me, who wanted me. Not you.”
“I…” Tenchii wilted as the memories replayed and made her grief-shot all over again. “I understand. My mate, she… she was rendered flightless in battle, so…”
The lynx’s face morphed into something less hostile. “Oh.”
“I wanted to blame your kind for it. To take it out on you, but… you’re right. It’s not your fault.” She looked back to the mountain, stomach twisting at the traitorous thought. “It’s his.”
“Well, the Serpent Mage isn’t the greatest leader, either.” Tenchii turned to the lynx in surprise. “She may not kill us, but she’s distrustful of us. I need charms to do magic, so I and the Ordinary animals aren’t seen as a threat, but… she’s tortured supposed dissenters more than once.”
Tenchii sighed. “So it seems we both serve the wrong side.”
A pause. Then the lynx smirked. “We don’t have to.”
“We can’t be the only ones who are tired of this. Tired of terrible leaders, tired of losing our loved ones, tired of war. If we can find others like us, if we can rally them, then maybe we can put a stop to all of this. For good.”
Tenchii blinked at the sudden resolve in the lynx’s eyes. “And… how do we do that?”
“You’re a General. You’ve already got troops ready to follow you, and if the other Generals feel the same way, you’ll have even more.”
The lynx’s smirk widened into a grin. “I’m well-versed in the art of insubordination. After all, I’ve already figured out how to sneak out of camp in the middle of the night to practice magic, haven’t I? Trust me; this can work.”
Tenchii let out something like a chuckle, felt something like hope. “You make a compelling argument.”
The lynx chucked back. “Oh, I know.”