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Missing Scene III From The Cloud Roads

At some point it turned into a contest, to see who could fly the longest without rest. But Moon didn't care who had won when long after nightfall Jade slowed and circled down to a clearing in the forest.

There was a pool, shallow and clear under the starlight, surrounded by plume trees waving gently in the soft breeze. As they landed on the grass, a group of small bright-colored lumps that Moon had thought were mushrooms all stood up, running for the undergrowth on stubby little legs. They seemed to be the clearing's only occupants. Moon listened for a long moment, taking in the damp air, but there was no more movement, no scent of any large predator. Beside him Jade relaxed and shifted to Arbora, obviously coming to the same conclusion.

Moon shifted to groundling and sank down beside the pool, relieved to be rid of his wings for a while and too tired even to take a drink from the stagnant water. Tomorrow they would have to hunt, and he resented the time it was going to take.

Jade stretched, a complicated process that seemed to involve every muscle in her body. Moon realized he was staring and made himself look away. Of all the complications that might occur on this journey, that was the one he needed least.

She sat down, curling her tail neatly around her feet, and said, "I've been thinking." She looked into the dark forest, preoccupied and grim. "If it was Branch that betrayed us to the Fell, he didn't have time to tell them that we were going to the Yellow Sea. I know he slept up in the Aeriat bowers the night before we left, and if he had disappeared for any length of time, the others would have noticed. The Fell he spoke to would've had to be hiding somewhere fairly close to the colony, but there was no scent of Fell nearby that night."

Moon had made a life out of slipping away unnoticed, and thought she was underestimating the average shifter's ability to do it, even when surrounded by other shifters. "It still could have been him. I left the colony just before dawn, and no one saw me."

In the faint starlight, he could see her staring at him. Her voice flat, she said, "And you don't think that seems suspicious."

Well, now it did. He wondered if she had meant what she had said when the Fell Kathras had accused Moon of being the traitor. Did she really believe Moon was innocent or had it just been a pretense, to fool him and the Fell? "I was hunting."

She said, not patiently, "Aeriat don't hunt when they're in the colony, only when they're traveling. That's what the hunters are for." She waved a frustrated hand, the light glinting on her rings. "That's probably one of the reasons Pearl and her warriors don't trust you."

Moon hadn't thought Pearl and her warriors needed any specific reasons to distrust him. "Then it's a good thing I won't be around for long."

He heard a faint scraping against the ground as her claws came out. There was a growl in her voice. "So you're going to let Pearl drive you off."

It couldn't be a good idea to provoke the only queen who didn't want to kill him, but Moon had done such a good job of it so far he couldn't seem to stop himself. "I said I'd help you get the court back from the Fell, and I'm doing that; what do you care what happens afterward?"

She settled into the grass, and said, opaquely, "I like to think ahead."

Moon watched her warily, but that appeared to be the last foray for the night. He curled up, propping his head on his arm, and was too tired to let it keep him awake for long.

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