Requesting Audience

Kendall approaches one of the blank walls and places a hand against it. Instantly a door appears, which he opens to reveal a closet full of clothing appropriate for a variety of people and occasions. Clearly this was a well-equipped room that had once seen frequent use. He rummages through the items hanging within, choosing something for them both and handing her a gown without comment. He also produces a wash basin so they can wipe away the traces of dirt left from their harrowing escape, along with evidence of their most recent exertions.

They both dress quickly, helping each other with the tasks, and she is astonished to realize the fabric of the overlarge dress seems to shrink and conform to her body like a second skin of sumptuous green. But though there is still much in her mind and she opens her mouth several times to ask a question or remark on their preparations, the words somehow die before finding voice. Now that their time of intimacy is done, he seems utterly focused on the next steps, a focus that seems to swallow all else and leave a void of silence between them.

Dressed and prepared, a gesture hides the closet door, and another reveals the hall exit. Kendall leads her back down the narrow stone stairs and through a way into a hall of grey — smoky grey carpet with silvery grey walls and blue-grey drapes hanging at windows overlooking a monochromatic landscape. Midway between the two white doors, he pauses next to one of the paintings on the wall, which depicts a flock of grey flying creatures with leathery wings and bright eyes. Then, while Margot stares in even more amazement, he reaches right into the painting and pulls out a bird, which struggles and opens its beak to release a warbling cry.

He brings a finger up to touch its head, stroking gently between its eyes, and it becomes quiet in his grasp. The princess can barely contain her questions as he allows the calmed bird to perch on his other hand and then brings it close so he can whisper in its ear. It clicks and gurgles back to him, and then Kendall tosses it into the air where it springs into flight. It circles their heads two times before flying off down the hallway to disappear through another painting.

"What was that creature?" she asks breathlessly once it disappears. Her eyes shine with wonder once more. "And what did you tell it?"

"They are… grabber birds, I suppose you could call them," he replies, turning to look down at her once more. "If you do not handle them correctly, they will grab a hold of you and it can be quite difficult to pry them loose. We keep a flock in a small, hmm… shadow cage? That's probably the easiest explanation. This portal allows access to the cage, and there are other portals in other parts of the ways. They are used as messengers, as they are smart little things. I sent it ahead to notify my mother that I seek an audience with her."

"Fascinating," is all Margot can whisper, her eyes returning to the painting that Kendall had reached into. Her fingers twitch with the temptation to touch the painting itself to see how it would feel against her skin. "What a marvelous way to manage your beasts."

He hesitates for a heartbeat, and then asks, "Would you like to try to capture one?"

"Yes!" she exclaims without hesitation, a smile kissing her eyes and turning her cheeks a healthy rose.

"Very well," he agrees with a nod, not at all surprised. "The cage where they are kept is… um… soft. You can find their bodies if you feel around a bit, and you should try to grasp one around its middle so it cannot fly away. Try not to let any of them hook their feet on your hand, or you may have trouble loosing it. Go ahead, and I will anchor you here."

"That small thing could pull me away?!" she asks, astonished.

"No, but the painting operates similarly to a way, and those are sometimes unpredictable," he says, grasping her bicep firmly.

She reaches out timidly to touch the painting, giggling with nervousness as her fingers break the plane and pass through to the unknown. It was not cold, nor was it warm. She feels a strange liquidity around her hand, almost like her hand and wrist had melted into the painting, and a faint pull as though the landscape might attempt to suck her in. She moves her hand around carefully, looking for signs of the birds, and a small bump against something solid makes her jump and gasp. She tries to close her hand around the shape, but her normally dexterous fingers seem slow and sluggish, and it eludes her.

She hesitates in her search as she realizes that her arm is turning grey, as though the ink was slowly climbing her skin. A shiver passes through her body at the strange sight, and she renews her search. She grasps several times before her hand closes around a solid body.

"Kendall!" she cries in excitement, suddenly realizing that now she didn't know what to do with it, and that the inky darkness had crawled nearly to her elbow.

"Bring it out, Margot, and you can see it," he directs her, smiling a little. "Remember to keep a firm grasp on it until it calms."

She glances between the portrait and Kendall a few times, uncertain but still eager. At his encouraging nod, she slowly retracts her hand until the bird emerges from the painting, twitching and chirping. It is barely larger than her hand, warm, and breathing heavily. Kendall releases her arm once she is free of the painting, and the inky sensation drains away.

"Shhhh," Margot whispers like a mother would soothe a child, affectionately stroking the bird with a finger in the same fashion that Kendall had. It calms immediately after her finger strokes between its eyes, and she is able to perch it on her other wrist.

"They— this creature… Oh, look at how adorable it is!" she murmurs in pleasure. Up close, she can see variations in its coloring, though subtle and composed entirely of shades of grey. It clicks and chirps at her, waiting for her to do something, so she pets its back with long, gentle strokes.

"You have given me so much, Kendall," she says softly in a voice full of wonder. Every experience is new, exciting, and impossible to believe. And yet, here she was, taking part in all of these delightful, magnificent things. "I wish I could do so in return."

"This is one of the reasons I brought you here," he murmurs, watching her enjoy herself and taking pleasure in her pleasure.

Turning away after a time, he takes something small from an urn on the table below the painting. "Here, give it this, and then you can put it back."

He hands her a black pellet which feels and looks like a burnt cinder. It smells faintly of smoke when Margot holds it to her nose, but the bird begins chirping at sight of it. With a delighted laugh, she gives the creature its present, barely keeping her fingers from being snapped between its tiny beak.

"How do I return it home? Do I take it by the body and just… reverse the process?" she asks, clearly not wanting to cause the little thing too much distress.

"Yes, or you can lure it back with another treat." He extends one to her.

Margot nods as she accepts the second wafer, and then holds it halfway within the painting. "It's time to return home, precious," she invites it in a soothing, maternal voice. "Thank you for sharing some of your time with me."

A few chirps, and the bird begins to waddle from wrist to fingers as she moves the perch close to the painting. The bird hops the last few inches, and the next thing Margot knows, she feels the same pinch as before of the bird taking its prize as it dives through the surface and disappears within.

A pause ensues as she tries to put words to the jumble of emotions that fluttered in her breast, but before either occupant in the hallway has a chance to speak, another little grey bird wings down the hall towards them, clicking and chirping as it flies. Kendall holds out a wrist for it, but he reaches with his other hand to snatch it by the legs before it can land. He holds it, flapping and chirping, until he calms it by once more stroking its head with a finger several times. Only then does he allow it to perch on his hand.

Once settled, it burbles and clicks a few times before it looks up at the Lord and begins to trill and chirp at him. He stares at the bird as it talks, apparently understanding the creature's method of communication. Margot watches the exchange, rapt, wondering what the bird was saying, but managing not to interrupt.

With a last couple of clicks, the creature finishes its soliloquy and becomes quiet, looking at Kendall expectantly. It isn't disappointed. The Lord takes one more wafer from the urn and rewards the bird for its service. But as the bird chomps the treat, he quickly grasps it with his now-empty hand and sticks it unceremoniously back into the painting.

"My mother is not in her chambers," he says. "The messenger was sent to let me know where she is right now. Come. We should continue."

"Of course," she answers, tearing her attention away from the painting. "Where are we going?"

"To the Hall of Journeys."

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Mother

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