The Flight Of Netted Birds

by SODA

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/9664.html)

The planet of Tori is famous for many things. It is the only planet that still doesn’t allow any of its guests to stay overnight. It is the only planet that only allows male visitors to enter. It is a planet whose beautiful scenery and landscaping is renowned but never copied throughout the Thousand Worlds. It is one of the smallest, yet oldest and most revered planets in the Thousand Worlds.

But it is most famous for the Aviary, which is unique to Tori and can be found no where else. It is said that in the Aviary, the most beautiful men and women dwell in an elaborate cage. The youngest are just over ten; the oldest are almost twenty. They will sing, dance, play instruments, converse, or anything else to keep you company. They are so beautiful, the story goes, you do not even notice the cage, a contraption of gold bedecked with metal and jewel flowers, with artificial birds, with the loveliest velvet and fabric, with a backdrop of the Thousand Worlds’ most precious stained glass. They are so beautiful, the story goes, that just one look at them will ensure a lifetime of shunning other beautiful people.

Few have seen these men and women. Even fewer, those lucky and unimaginably rich few, own one for themselves. In the planet of Tori, in the sanctuary called the Aviary, they are known as Honorable Guardians, for in their care are the most valuable human treasures of the Thousand Worlds: the Avies.

*

Many boys and girls are sent to the Aviary by parents who see in infant faces a gem of unpolished beauty. Some are rejected and some are kept; that is how the Aviary keeps its cage full.

Many Avies, however, are the sons and daughters of former Avies and their Honorable Guardians. Carduelis was just such a child.

His mother was a legendary Avies. She was so beautiful, they said, that when she danced trees would weep petals and rivers would change their paths to be closer to her. When she was given to her Honorable Guardian, they said, many young men jumped off bridges or lay under cars or tore out their hearts, for once she was given away, they could no longer freely see her. They could no longer listen to her sweet voice, or watch her arms move to the rhythm of a drum, or stare into her eyes, the most desired eyes in the Thousand Worlds. With such a beautiful mother, the Aviary servants whispered, the child must be of exceptional beauty as well.

Carduelis did not disappoint them. He had his mother’s unfathomable dark eyes, had her imperturbable golden curls. He had her delicate hands and nimble feet. He resembled her in beauty as well as in her features. “A girl?” many of the Aviary servants wondered, and the ones who knew better laughed. “A boy,” they answered, “who will be more legendary than his mother. He might even surpass her in beauty, if such a thing were even possible.”

Ah, the Aviary servants said. If such a thing were possible, than Carduelis would be the one.

*

Though he was ready by the age of eight, Carduelis followed the Avies tradition and did not enter the gilded cage until he was ten.

He was the most talented dancer. Though he was small and thin, his feet were quick and his hands moved like the curve of silk on a full-grown woman. He could dance the Crimson Flower, the Hundred Butterflies, and even the Opening of Winter, which no one but the Avies Egretta had been able to do at his age, and the Avies Egretta, everyone knew, had been given to the Emperor of the Thousand Worlds when she was of age.

He was a talented singer as well, though his fellow Avies Robin, a bright boy with a head of fiery red hair, was in some ways superior to him. However Robin had not Carduelis’ sense of melody or poise, and so even when he and Carduelis duetted together, Carduelis outshone Robin more often than not.

But more importantly, Carduelis was beautiful, self-contained, and unbearably intelligent for his age. His older teachers often wept with uncontrollable joy when they saw him. He brought his dance teacher down to his knees with a single smile. He had charmed all the servants and maids and caretakers of the Aviary. His wit could match that of a well-versed courtesan. His sense of humor made even Old Kuro crack a smile. Many of the other Avies, the older ones with ebony hair or ruby lips, the ones who were told at a young age that they were sure to attract the eyes of exclusive and wealthy Honorable Guardians, even they were frightened of Carduelis, that he might outstrip their beauty and talent as soon as he entered the cage.

And he was only ten.

*

The planet of Tori was in fact so far away from the ordinary traffic of the Thousand Worlds that a single trip there was usually more than half the average yearly income. One can exercise their imagination when considering how much a round trip made in a single day would cost.

The Aviary charged no entrance fee for its services. Even a penniless beggar, provided he somehow could pay the expense of a trip there, would be graciously welcomed and entertained by the inhabitants of the Aviary. Yet it was very dangerous to visit the Aviary unless you had the wealth of millions and the abandon to spend such a wealth, for once you have been seduced by the Aviary and its Avies, you will want to come back over and over again. Perhaps you might even want to be given an Avies, and the price of such a purchase was so high it was almost a crime just to write it down.

So only the very rich and the very eligible attended Plumage Ceremonies at the Aviary, to see the arrival of those newly ten-year-old Avies who would, in a decade, be given away to an Honorable Guardian. But at Carduelis’ Plumage Ceremony, there were many people there, some who had spent all of their money for many years just to see him as he was wrapped in a sensuous black gown and trickled with the Water of the Ages, guaranteeing him grace and beauty as long as he was an Avies. Then Carduelis, as per custom, gave a performance.

He danced the First Touch of Spring. It brought tears to the eyes of the audience, so much so that they could not even see Yan Zi, the lovely Avies girl who came after him, who for her initiation, painted on the silk of her own gown, using a brush with gold dust, the landscape of Tori as seen from the clouds.

Many of the not so rich who came to the Plumage Ceremony went away feeling as if they had been to heaven. It was worth the sacrifice, they said as they scrounged for food and clothing money. It was worth any amount of poverty to see Carduelis, who will surely be the most famous Avies, surpassing even his mother as he alone could.

*

When Carduelis entered the cage, Robin turned him by his shoulders and pointed to an aging face in the crowd. “Look,” Robin said, “that man is the Duke. He comes to every Plumage Ceremony. He is rumored to have so much money that he does not plan his visits to the Aviary. He just comes when he wants to.”

“Does he have an Avies?” Carduelis asked, for rarely did Honorable Guardians come to Plumage Ceremonies. Those who have an Avies never hunger for another.

“He did once,” Robin whispered conspiratorially. “But now he does not.”

“Did the Avies die? The Duke is an old man. Surely the Avies did not die before him!”

“I do not know,” Robin answered, abashed. “But maybe, if he asks for you to accompany him, he will tell you.”

Carduelis looked out into the crowd from the thin and elegant lines of the cage. He searched for the Duke’s face. The Duke’s hair was graying. He had lines around his mouth and forehead, and he looked as if he had seen many troubles in his life. Carduelis did not understand the sadness and the worry. How could he? Carduelis was never saddened and was never worried. He saw only that the Duke must have once been a handsome man. He saw only that the Duke had a kind smile and that the Duke wore simple but expensive clothing. Thus when he caught the Duke’s eye, he smiled at the Duke. He lowered his lashes and just lightly loosened his robe, showing off the almost curve of his naked shoulder.

And when the Plumage Ceremony was over and the business of the Aviary resumed, the Duke requested Carduelis to accompany him.

*

“It is such an honor,” Carduelis said with his head bowed, “to have this opportunity to meet you, my lord.”

The Duke lifted Carduelis’ head gently with a touch of his knuckles. “So this is the son of the Peacock of the Thousand Worlds,” he murmured, his breath like the touch of liquid on the warmth of a fire. “It is far more of an honor to meet you, Carduelis.”

“You flatter me too much.”

“Your beauty is breathtaking,” the Duke replied.

“Please, my lord, I shall have to cover my face with a cloth, then, and hide myself behind an opaque screen to speak with you.”

Surprised, the Duke took a sip from his glass. Carduelis leaned over so that he might refill the glass, giving the Duke a glimpse of his wrist as he moved, quick like a fish.

“And why would that be?”

“Because I should like you to continue breathing,” Carduelis finally said, and was satisfied when the Duke threw back his graying head and laughed.

When the Duke finished his drink, Carduelis danced for him the Bird’s First Flight– typically the dance given to the first patron of a newly initiated Avies. The Duke clapped his hands once sharply in acknowledgement and admiration, but then, smiling, murmured to Carduelis, “Why do you restrain yourself?”

“My lord?”

“That is the dance of any Avies. I did not pick you to be lied to. I hear you are poetry in motion. I hear you are moving art. Come, my dear Carduelis. Dance for me the Opening of Winter, and sing for me the Goldfinch’s Sorrow. So that I may feast on your beauty, dance for me, and tell me how the Goldfinch loved a human man she could not have.”

Carduelis had never been called “my dear Carduelis” before. And though he did not understand what emotion the Duke looked at him with, he understood the warmth that filled him when the Duke touched the back of his hand to Carduelis’ cheek. So Carduelis danced the Opening of Winter, and while executing the half turn and the fluid, ethereal gestures, he sang of the Goldfinch’s love for the man she could never have.

Oh, that I may have arms instead of wings!
Oh, that you may understand my song!
To reach out and touch you,
I would give up flight.
I would shed these feathers.
I would lose this voice.
If you would only love me,
if you would only love me,
I would do anything!

Though the Duke had closed his eyes, Carduelis continued dancing. Finally Carduelis finished his song. The Duke was a tall man, and when he unfolded himself to stand before Carduelis, Carduelis was afraid. He who had always been in the company of boys and women did not know how to react to the intense scrutiny of an adult man, and Carduelis lowered his eyes shyly.

“Lift your head and let me look upon your face,” the Duke commanded. Carduelis did so, and found that the Duke had tears in his eyes.

“Why do you cry, my lord?” he asked, touching his tiny fingers to the Duke’s face. The tears were hot. The Duke smiled sadly, though Carduelis did not understand, and pressed Carduelis against his chest. Carduelis felt small and frail with the Duke’s hands around his shoulders.

“Ah, why do I cry? You do not understand the sorrow of the Goldfinch. Your song lacks pain. You have never suffered as the Goldfinch has. You have never known love. Yet your voice is so beautiful. There is so much beauty in you that I must cry so I will not lose my mind.”

Carduelis trembled and felt through the soft silk of his robes the Duke’s hands trembling as well. The Duke pressed his tearstained cheek against Carduelis’. He spoke no more. Carduelis was grateful, because he did not know what else to say. Though he was quick and bright and sharp, he did not understand the sorrow in the Duke’s heart, a sorrow as wide and fathomless as the Goldfinch’s song. He wrapped his small arms around the Duke’s waist and waited.

*

Paradiso, one of the Avies’ maids, woke Carduelis the next morning from his bed. “What is it?” Carduelis asked of her grumpily, and Paradiso curtsied daintily as she said, “Please, sir, the Duke has asked for you.”

“How? Even the nearest planet is at least an hour away, and the shuttle trips have not begun yet! He certainly did not stay here either.”

“Please, sir, he is here and asking for you.” Paradiso began to unwrap him from his bedclothes. She combed his golden curls carefully so as not to hurt him and swathed him in his black gown. She gently patted his face with water and perfume so that he might be clean.

As she was fixing his gown tie, Carduelis asked Paradiso, “What kind of man is the Duke, do you know?”

“He is a very kind man, sir. He is also very rich. He had a wife but no children. He was once a Speaker in the Thousand Worlds’ Congress, but he has stopped. His life is spent alone.”

“Who was his Avies?”

“Alouette, sir. But he does not have her anymore.”

Carduelis swept his hair from his face and stared at Paradiso intently. He was still very short and small, but Paradiso bowed to him again, showing him the top of her head timidly in subservient waiting. “How does one lose an Avies, Paradiso?”

“Please, sir, I don’t know.”

And because Carduelis was a ten-year-old boy, he smiled mischievously and whispered while giggling, “Maybe he plucked her by accident,” singing a little ditty about Alouette’s defeathering.

But because Carduelis was the most intelligent Avies of his peer group, because he was sharp and bright and quick, because he was destined to surpass even his mother, because though he never knew pain nor sadness he was still a pure-hearted child, and because he had felt the Duke’s warm hand upon his shoulder, had seen that smile he did not understand, he did not really believe what he said.

He began walking towards the guest rooms, awakened by a determination to find out what happened to the Duke’s Alouette.

*

Carduelis found the Duke in one of the guest rooms with windows. The Tori sunlight, curiously colored, though Carduelis who knew no other sun did not realize the color, cast the Duke’s face in lined shadows. Carduelis sang the first two lines of the Goldfinch’s Sorrow as he waited for the Duke to greet him.

The Duke’s hands were folded behind his back. They flexed experimentally as he told Carduelis, “I stayed in the shuttle for the night. It went into orbit around Tori before reentering this morning.”

Carduelis stepped forward in shock. “My lord! The cost of such a stay would buy you two Avies!”

“Yet will be far less than the amount demanded at the Claiming Ceremony in nine years to be your Honorable Guardian,” the Duke mildly chided, and Carduelis turned a flattering shade of pink.

“Why did my lord stay overnight in the shuttle, then?” Carduelis asked. He tilted his face up so that the early morning glow would catch the darkness of his eyes and the delicate gold of his hair.

“Could not your beauty and sweet song alone justify it? No,” the Duke amended, bowing his head with a gentle smile, “I will cease this teasing. I am not so pure of heart as that. I am selfish and greedy.”

“My lord is–”

“Placing the first offer to be your Honor Guardian, my dear Carduelis.”

It was a stunning statement. To put down a bid for an Avies was to bind your name with him or her for the years to come. No bid could be rescinded, no matter what the price. An Avies had not been bid on the second day for years and years, and the Duke’s willingness to do so for Carduelis shocked him beyond all.

“Please do not play lightly with this subject, my lord–”

“You insult me,” the Duke replied. He kneeled in front of Carduelis so that he was level with Carduelis’ face. “I want you for my own. Why, you ask? It is enough that you bring me to tears. You are beautiful. Your voice is beautiful. I will love you and care for you as no other man will.”

“My lord is very kind,” Carduelis demurred. “I am honored, but I fear my lord will regret his rash decision. You have only known me for a day–”

“And I know that I am not mistaken. Come, my dear Carduelis. Would you not want me to be your Honorable Guardian? I have not signed yet.”

Carduelis cried out, “No! I am the one who is not worthy. I could not ask for more. My lord is infinitely kind…”

“Kind, kind. There will be a day, my dear Carduelis, when kindness is not enough. Would you want me then?” The Duke lifted his hand and placed it lightly, as lightly as the breath of spring, upon Carduelis’ cheek. Carduelis, unable to answer, echoed the motion, and the Duke’s familiar hot tears slid down Carduelis’ fingers once more. He whispered hoarsely, “See how your very touch moves me.”

Carduelis parted his lips, touching them with his tongue before replying. “If you should be my Honorable Guardian, I should want nothing more.”

The Duke smiled his gentle, melting smile, the one that spoke of things Carduelis did not know. He lifted Carduelis in his arms, carrying him against his chest, so that Carduelis might feel against his side the beating of the Duke’s heart. It was a comforting sound, constant and unfaltering. Carduelis closed his eyes.

He, indeed, could not have asked for more.

*

At breakfast Carduelis poured the Duke tea and asked him about the Avies he had before. “Ah, Alouette,” the Duke said, looking somewhere far past Tori and the Aviary, into the unknown space where the Duke had a life Carduelis would someday be a part of. “She was a charming girl. I bid for her early too, and I was delighted to have her. She meant much to me. But now she has left me, for a better place, I hope.”

“Left you? What for?”

“Love, my dear Carduelis, love, of course. She met a distant prince while performing one day and fell so deeply in love she could not sing without him there. It broke my heart to see her go. She was my first.”

Carduelis wondered if this was the pain that caused the Duke to look so kind and wise. “But my lord is kind to have let her go.”

The Duke slapped the table in frustration with the flat of his palm. It was a sharp, sudden sound that would have fazed a lesser Avies pouring tea, but Carduelis only turned his dark eyes to the Duke and watched as the Duke worked his jaw around his answer. “I did not want her to go. I wanted to crush his wealth, his family, his position. I wanted her always with me. I would have been willing to do anything. I see you cannot understand me. When I saw her smile as she spoke with him, it made me feel broken inside. Yet she was so happy, you see? She broke me with her happiness.”

If it were not for you, I would have kept you, Carduelis sang. He lowered his head, abashed. Had he been too rash, too forward? Would the Duke understand that he was trying to understand? Perhaps the Duke would not love a child who pretended to understand adult affairs. He did not raise his head until the Duke’s large hand enfolded his own.

“The Song of the Fisherman’s Wife.” The Duke smiled appreciatively. “Yes, it was like that exactly. But we shall stop speaking of my sad affairs. Speak of your life instead.”

So they spent the day conversing sweetly with one another, the Duke’s just newly graying head pressed against Carduelis’ bright golden head. Carduelis spoke of his favorite paintings and songs and the other Avies that were his peers; the Duke spoke of his travels and his works and his life. Soon they felt as if they had known each other all their life. Carduelis felt so near to the Duke that after noon, when they had wandered into the Aviary Gardens, he rested his head against the Duke’s shoulder, childishly sleepy. They made such a pleasing pair that the maids and servants were afraid to ask if they wanted food. It was only after the Duke summoned them in an elegant gesture that they brought tea and sandwiches, awakening Carduelis with their delicious aromas.

Carduelis felt both sad and content when the Duke finally had to leave. He knew that there would be many more days like this for years to come, and perhaps one day he would spend every day with the Duke. He felt that no one would ever compare to the Duke. In his heart, the Duke had a special place, and he went to bed that night smiling happily.

*

The years passed. Carduelis grew so beautiful that many of the Avies who did not know him well refused to stand next to him in the cage for fear that he would outshine him. Their isolation only made his beauty more poignant. Though many thought such a feat was impossible, he surpassed his childhood skills of dance and became even more polished in his movements. His voice, when accompanying his nimble gestures, would move even a stone or planet to tears.

It was recognized that the Duke would ultimately be his Honorable Guardian, but many other guests wanted to at least have their names in the book of bids under Carduelis’ name. Before he was even sixteen, the bidding had already surpassed the highest in history. Some declared that by then Carduelis was officially the greatest Avies to have ever passed through the Aviary. Carduelis took all this praise graciously. As he had told the Duke, though he pleased and delighted many guests, he ultimately was waiting for the day when he would be the Duke’s Avies. There was nothing more than he could ask for. The Duke often brought presents and souvenirs from the exotic places he traveled so that Carduelis’ room was always full of wonders that the other Avies had never seen. The Duke treated Carduelis as if he were the most precious thing the Duke had ever touched, and perhaps he was indeed. Everyone agreed that they were the most perfect pair together.

Then Carduelis, just before his sixteenth birthday, met Fei.

*

It was winter at Tori, and the Aviary bedecked itself with silver and blue in celebration. The Avies dressed in light blue robes with edging of white embroidery and covered the cages with snowflake ornaments of crystal and light metals. The flowers, too, were made of white stone, and shared their perch with delicately carved silver birds. Carduelis looked especially lovely in his light blue. Those who saw him commented on how deep his dark eyes were against the paleness of his winter skin. “Just like the sun on a winter day, touching the last of the flowers,” they said, and Carduelis graced them with a smile.

On that day, Carduelis was leaning with his cheek pressed against the bars of the cage, waiting for the Duke who had promised to celebrate both the coming of the winter and Carduelis’ birthday with him, when he spotted a man making his way through the other customers. He was approaching the cage so that he could have a closer look at the Avies. Carduelis noted that he was tall and well built, older than Carduelis but still very young, dressed in a clean-pressed suit. He looked like a businessman, which was rare, as those who made money through such work in other planets rarely came to Tori to waste money.

The man had hair as dark as Carduelis’ eyes. It glistened in the dark like fish swimming rapidly through the waters of a moving stream. Carduelis was strangely mesmerized. He could not tear his eyes away from the poised figure as it came closer and closer. He wanted to see the stranger’s face. He had almost forgotten that the Duke would be coming. He felt as if that man was familiar, strangely familiar, as if Carduelis had seen him once before. Perhaps it had been in a dream. Lift your head, he wanted to demand. Let me see you look upon me.

When their eyes met across the room, Carduelis could not move. The man did not continue to walk either. The man had eyes the color of Carduelis’ robe, a crystal blue, pure and sharp. They caught Carduelis’s gaze and would not let it go. They were mesmerized and transfixed, as if their hearts had touched in the space between them.

The stranger walked up, almost right next to the cage. A small murmured uproar rose among the other Avies. Guests did not usually approach the cage. Yet here this one stood, so close Carduelis could reach out and touch him. The stranger parted his lips as if to speak, yet no sound escaped. Carduelis lifted his hand slowly, as if to greet the man, to ask him to come closer.

Then, haltingly, the stranger finally turned away. Someone had called out to him, or he felt ashamed. Carduelis watched the stranger’s back as he walked and felt in his chest a peculiar feeling. It had an ache, a feel, a taste, but no name. It constricted and released. It had carved a hole in him that he knew only the stranger could fill, yet he held onto that hole. He needed to know more about that man. He wanted to be a part of the man. He had never felt this way before.

He did not know it yet, but he had fallen in love.

*

When the Duke called for Carduelis, the very man that Carduelis had spotted accompanied him. Carduelis did not know how to respond. The man did not either. They once again looked upon each other, unable to speak. Carduelis knew that his legs were shaking, and he could see that the hand the man reached out for Carduelis to shake was trembling as well. The Duke, obvious and cheerful, said, “This, my dear Carduelis, is Fei. He is the president of a rather large business back on Old Earth. It was his birthday some time ago as well, and his friends and family have sent him up here as a birthday present.”

“Happy birthday, Mr. President,” Carduelis demurred. He hastily bobbed his head in a semblance of a bow. Fei fumbled through his thank-yous. A thrill coursed through Carduelis’ body. It was possible that Fei felt for him just as Carduelis felt for Fei. He wanted to know for sure, but there was no way for him to ask. He anxiously glanced at the Duke, who looked worried at Fei’s continued discomfort.

“Is there something wrong, Mr. President?” he asked.

Fei quickly shook his head. “Nothing, I–It is just that Carduelis is so beautiful,” he said. He refused to look at Carduelis, instead addressing the Duke. Bemused, the Duke smiled and clapped a heavy hand on Carduelis’ shoulder with the affection of a lover.

“He is the most beautiful person alive.”

“My lord praises me too much–” Carduelis began the perfunctory denial, but Fei blurted out, “You are.”

“I have never–it is like looking at–oh!” Fei continued, then turning his head away, utterly embarrassed. “It is just that I have never see anything so beautiful as you are.”

The Duke laughed heartily. As he had gotten old his voice became richer, the timbre of well-seasoned dark wood and coffee. Hearing it, Fei relaxed more. “As my present to you, young man, Carduelis shall accompany you for today.”

“My lord!” Carduelis exclaimed, jolted out of his reverie by the Duke’s unprecedented words.

“Is it a bad idea? I should not be so greedy, my dear Carduelis. I have had you accompany plenty of times, and you will accompany me for plenty of times in the future. This may be Fei’s only time ever coming. You must leave him with a good impression of the Aviary. Its reputation is up to you, my pet.”

At his words, happiness swelled inside Carduelis so large that Carduelis almost could not contain it. He could not even feel the press of the Duke’s hand on his shoulder, only the drifting, flying emotion inside him. He wanted to reach out and touch Fei, but what could he do? It did not become him to be so overcome with emotion. He was afraid to betray it, afraid to even turn around to glance at Fei as he lead him to a private room, singing a few lines of the traditional welcoming song to calm his nerves.

*

Carduelis danced the Opening of Winter and sang the Saibara of Frost so well that Fei’s tea, poured warm for his enjoyment, had turned stony cold by the time he put it back down. Buoyed by exhilaration, Carduelis made delightful conversation about his life and the Aviary, telling all of his jokes so he could indulge in the sound of Fei’s laughter, and listened intently as Fei described the business of his company. “Do you own it?” Carduelis asked at one point, concluding from the title of President that Fei must be the most important person there, but Fei corrected that impression.

“The Chairman is actually the owner, and his son after that. They are both kind people who have given me so much I could never repay them,” Fei answered. Carduelis listened to Fei speak about the Chairman’s family, about his own family and how his mother had died when he was younger, and felt more and more affection for Fei. He spoke of his work with passion and love, and soon began to forget even his awkwardness around Carduelis. When Carduelis touched his hand during the conversation, he grasped back and held it in his, pressing it softly as he spoke.

Soon they slid into a companionable silence. Carduelis’ eyes drank in every detail of Fei’s face as if memorizing it. “I will be sad when you leave us,” Carduelis said. He could not find the words to speak the sadness inside of him. Soon Fei would have to go back to Old Earth, as no guest could stay overnight at Tori. And the Duke had warned that Fei might never come back. Carduelis held onto Fei’s hand hard, gaze thrust upon Fei’s thoughtful expression. “I wish you could stay.”

“I am not sorry to have come,” Fei replied expressively, tenderly gazing back at Carduelis. “To have spent this time with you–I will never forget this as long as I live.”

“No,” Carduelis said, shaking his head. He felt the full burden of his youth and inexperience. In vain he moved closer to Fei. “You do not understand. I am deeply saddened. Your memory will linger in my heart forever, linger with sorrow and thirst. I shall think of you forever. You may haunt my dreams and my every waking moment, but that would still not be enough. I wish you could stay.” Words failed him, and he could only lean in to touch his mouth to Fei’s. It was a gesture he had learned from the other Avies and guests to swear an everlasting bond. But Fei moved away from him quickly, releasing their hands so that they were no longer touching.

“You should not behave like this,” Fei cried out, surprised. He touched his hands to mouth as if to block the lips that were no longer there. “The Duke would not be pleased—”

“How can I show you that I care for you?” Carduelis cried back. “What can I do then, so that you would understand? How can I make you see that I love you, if you will not let me?” He felt the words come out of his mouth unbidden, yet he knew they were true. It was love. He had never known love until he, so close to kissing Fei, had been pushed back. Now that he knew what it was, he felt the pain inside him clarify so that he could contain the emotion. It had a name, it belonged to him. He used it within him to plead, “What must I do for you to let me love you?”

“I never — ” Fei stopped, unable to continue. Carduelis began to cry, thinking that Fei would leave without ever knowing his love. “I never — I didn’t know. I thought you and the Duke — Forgive me.” He kneeled in front of Carduelis so that their faces were level. Fei touched his fingers to Carduelis’ face, wiping away the tears so carefully one might think he were touching the moon. “You are so beautiful,” he whispered, on his knees as if worshipping, and Carduelis threw his arms, needy and eager, around his neck. “Oh, Carduelis, Carduelis, you are so beautiful, do not cry,” Fei murmured, rocking them back and forth, his hand stroking Carduelis’ spine to calm him. Fei’s touch was like fire to Carduelis’ skin. He felt as he never had before. It was love, he knew. He was in love.

“Hold me,” Carduelis demanded. “Hold me as you would one you love, for I know you do.” Fei trembled in his arms. Was that the tremble of the Duke who too wept as Carduelis did? No, it was different. It was not a tremble of great sadness. It was a stronger, more potent emotion. It was desire.

“Hold me,” Carduelis demanded of Fei, and kissed him childishly on the lips, and so Fei did. They embraced as lovers would, bare heart to bare heart, returning to the gaze they had shared when they first met. Fei put his hand between Carduelis’ legs, coaxing heat and longing; Carduelis learned the many ways of pleasure from Fei’s adoration. They kissed many times until it was as comfortable as their own skin. Tangled together, they promised love to each other in many breaths, and both felt as if they would be happy if night never came, leaving them forever entwined.

*

When the time came for Fei to leave, Carduelis did not weep. The Duke stroked Carduelis’ cheek, for he was leaving with Fei on the last shuttle departing from Tori. Carduelis smiled the courteous smile he had learned as a child before tiptoeing to kiss Fei on the cheek, a polite kiss, empty of any emotion. He felt the heat of Fei’s skin against his lips as he said, “You must come back to see me. I will not forgive you if this is indeed your last time here. Avies are not cold-hearted, Mr. President. They too make acquaintances.”

“Hear that, Fei,” the Duke said, heartily laughing. “Now you must obey Carduelis, for what he says is the law of the heart.”

“Indeed,” Fei said distantly. His mouth moved as if to smile.

Then Carduelis watched them go.

*

Ah, what could Carduelis do, as one night became seven, as one day past became one month after? He passed his days in silent longing, dancing and singing and entertaining, always with a smile, hiding away his emotions. As time moved on, he felt as if he loved Fei even more. He would dream of Fei’s face and voice, and the pillow would be wet when he awoke. He was but a child, and he did not know the world, only the Aviary, the Duke, the guests, and Fei.

He could not ask the other Avies about love, for they would want to know, and he could not tell. He could not ask the Duke. “My lord worries too much,” Carduelis said every time the Duke asked if he did not feel well. “There is nothing wrong. Only my happiness at seeing you has overwhelmed me.”

“Stop lying to me, Carduelis. Tell me what I can do for you,” the Duke demanded, holding Carduelis close to him, and Carduelis tried to lose himself once more in that kind embrace. The Duke’s heart beat behind his chest, as constant as ever, but Carduelis, who could only hear the broken whisper of “I love you, I love you,” suffered only numbness. He was wracked with guilt and despair, but for the Duke, who was always so kind and patient with him, to the Duke who had been the first man Carduelis cared for, he smiled to ease his worry.

Soon he gave up all hope. Fei had sent neither letter nor gift and showed no signs of ever returning. Carduelis began to believe that Fei had regretted their meeting and so, too, gave up hope of ever seeing Fei again. He filled his days with learning new songs and dances. The thinness his distress had caused him gave him an ethereal beauty that others noticed, and he became even more renowned than before. The most beautiful person — no, the most beautiful thing in the world, everyone praised, and Carduelis helplessly resigned himself to the life he was promised since the beginning.

*

Then, in Carduelis’ eighteenth year, when he no longer dreamed of Fei with a wet pillow and when he began to once again anticipate his life with the Duke after his Claiming Ceremony, Fei came to the Aviary once more.

Carduelis was informed of this. In his hurry to see Fei, he upturned the table of the current guest he was with. Apologizing profusely, he attempted to pick up the pieces, flustered, but the guest, a congressman and nobleman, only chuckled and urged Carduelis to rise. “It is not every day that you see the Treasure of the Thousand Worlds in such a fervor. Please do not dirty your hands with this. I will call a maid.”

Fei had not been waiting long in the requested private room. He too was thinner than Carduelis had last seen him. There was a worry line on his brow, but it disappeared as he spotted Carduelis rushing towards him. He crushed Carduelis in such a passionate embrace that Carduelis could not tell whether he was not breathing because of Fei or because of his own emotions.

Though Fei seemed as if he had much he wanted to say, Carduelis stripped them both of clothes and pulled Fei on top of him. His body had grown lithe and beautiful, purified by his grievances and his restrained love, and Fei could not help but cover every inch of it with kisses. They made love for a very long time until neither of them could stand from their exhaustion. Carduelis lay among their clothes as Fei stroked his golden curls, murmuring embarrassingly truthful things, and Carduelis buried his face in Fei’s chest as if they were never to be parted.

“I promised myself I would not return, but the Duke was right. Your words are the law of the heart. I saved up all the money I could spare for this ticket. My colleagues asked me if I was becoming a monk.” Fei’s laughter was a rumble against Carduelis’ ear, so sweet and dear to him that Carduelis felt tears in his eyes. “I gave up everything that was not essential. I barely ate anything that I didn’t need. Except for lemon drops,” Fei added guiltily, wrapping a curl around his finger and kissing it. “Because they tasted like you.”

“Lemon drops?” Carduelis kissed Fei on the mouth. “What do they taste like? Do they taste like that?”

“You have never tasted them before?” Fei asked, surprised. “Well, they are a candy from Old Earth. They taste like sugared lemons. I will send some to you—”

“No!” Carduelis burrowed his face against Fei’s shoulder. Petulant, he clutched at Fei’s neck and said, “I will only eat them with you. If you are to send them to me, you must bring yourself with them.”

“Oh, Carduelis,” Fei replied sadly. He touched his mouth to Carduelis’ forehead, trailing kisses down Carduelis’ cheek to stop his own tears. “I do love you. I love you more than myself. But we will probably never meet again. By the time I save up enough money to visit you, you will already be the Duke’s Avies, and I could never hold you like this, or kiss you, or tell you that I love you then. We must be parted, my lovely Carduelis. You know that in your heart of hearts.”

Carduelis shook his head violently as he stood up, a regal, naked figure. “Run away with me,” he said in a commanding voice. “We can run away before the Claiming Ceremony.”

“Impossible.” Fei scrambled to get up and drape Carduelis’ robe around him so that he would not get a cold. Carduelis turned towards Fei’s touch like a sunflower, and Fei’s smile was poignant with unspoken emotion. He curved his palm around Carduelis’ chin. “You would be impossible to hide as we escaped. And what should we do after we leave Tori? We would be beggars, poor and penniless. Such hardship does not become you. It would be–I could not do it to you.”

“What do I care of hardship if I am to lose you?” Carduelis cried pleadingly. His tears flowed freely onto Fei’s hand. He wiped his eyes, but the tears only continued to fall. “You mean more to me than all the riches and all the comforts in the world. If I had you, I would want and need nothing else. Promise me,” he said, staring Fei fiercely with his bright and wet black eyes. “Promise me you will come for me to take me away. I will find a way. I need only your word.”

“If I were to promise you, I could not tell a lie,” Fei said, very solemn.

“That I know,” Carduelis whispered. “My word is the law of the heart.”

“Then,” Fei said, after a very long time, “I promise.”

They kissed as if, despite this promise, they would never see each other again.

*

Carduelis spoke to Paradiso first about his plan for escape. She listened, enthralled, to the story of their love affair, and afterwards she promised wholeheartedly that she would assist Carduelis however she could. Her lover worked in the shuttle service, she told Carduelis. She could smuggle them both safely off Tori to begin their new life. She spoke admiringly of Carduelis’ willingness to give up everything for Fei. He thanked her so earnestly that she turned a crimson red.

For two years Carduelis lived each day waiting for a sign from Fei. Hopeful again, he was filled with joy and laughter every day, prompting the Duke to note that the passing winter must have left a brilliant spring. Carduelis felt guilt when he was around the Duke, but he did not know what he could do. He loved Fei; the very thought of Fei taking him away forever made Carduelis want to sing. Often he hummed the ancient love songs to the delight of his guests, who commented that Carduelis was very much like a blossoming flower. “He has finally bloomed,” they sighed, and wistfully watched Carduelis chatter blithely with the Duke, knowing that Carduelis would never be theirs.

Soon it was only a few days away from his Claiming Ceremony. Paradiso woke him in the middle of the night with a worried look on her face. Carduelis, still sleepy, rubbed his eyes and tried to not yawn as she slid his slippers on and draped a warm robe around him. “Please, sir, a letter has arrived for you from off planet.”

Instantly awake, Carduelis asked eagerly, “Is it from Fei?” He brushed his hair and pinched his cheeks to stir his blood. Paradiso bit her lip, looking away. Carduelis felt his heart skip a beat and his stomach sink into the soles of his feet. “Is something wrong?”

Paradiso withdrew a wrinkled envelope and a small wooden box the size of her palm from her dress. Wordlessly, she handed them both to Carduelis, and, after she was sure he had received both of them, she ran out of the room with a choked sob.

Carduelis’ hands were shaking so hard he could barely open the letter. Paradiso had kept the lights dim, so that Fei’s words seemed to blend, shift, and fade in the paper. He had written in an elegant gray. Carduelis was drawn to them just as he had been drawn to Fei’s gaze; they were sometimes ragged and sometimes smooth, and Carduelis could see where tears had fallen on the page and smeared the words.

“My love,” Fei had written. “Forgive me. The director died suddenly of a heart attack. His son needs my help, or else the family that has supported me for so long will surely disappear. My father too, who has been ailing for a long time, suffered an illness so extreme he is bedridden. I am torn: my heart cries out for you, but I know I must stay.

“We joke that your words are law. I have saved enough money for a ticket to you. You do not know how much I yearn to go to you, but I could never forgive myself if I left. Even as I write this I can see your face as I last left it. My dear Carduelis, forgive me, oh! forgive me. I have spent many nights sleepless with grief. I can only count on your better nature to do for me what I could not.

“Do not cry, dear heart! For I have wept enough for the both of us. Be happy with the Duke. Stay with him. My love for you is ruinous, while his is noble. Your life with him will be wonderful, full of joy and wonder. He will make you happy as I never can. You must not cry for me while you are with him.

“I love you. I could never tell you how much I love you. You will not believe me now, but my love, my light, my only, it is true.”

The box was full of small, yellow spheres. They were the size of the first segment of Carduelis’ pinky, and slightly sticky to the touch. Carduelis placed one on his tongue. They tasted like nothing he had ever had before, lemon and sugar and bitterness all at once. He thought of Fei, far from him, writing this letter while arranging the candy in the box, as many as he could put in, trying to convince Carduelis of his love, his hand rebelling against the weakness of his words. He remembered Fei’s last kiss, slow and longing, and the way Fei held him close.

Carduelis sank to his knees, hugging the letter tight, almost crushing the box against his chest, and wept even as he tasted the sweetness of Fei’s love. His tears darkened and smudged the words of Fei’s letter, a companion to the already clouded paper, and did not dry for a long time. His sleeves were so wet with his tears that when Paradiso came back, she helplessly burst out crying as well. Headless of her position, she enfolded Carduelis to her breast, and the sun rose on them asleep together, their tears mingled.

*

Carduelis did not cry at his Claiming Ceremony. He was as beautiful as he had always been, and seemed in the best of spirits when the Duke finally claimed Carduelis as his own. All of the Aviary was both happy and sad: happy, for the Duke had been a kind patron and he could be rewarded with no one but Carduelis, and sad, for the greatest Avies of all time would now be leaving them.

Carduelis sang The Goldfinch’s Sorrow as his farewell song. Everyone who heard him cried, and even Old Kuro, who by now was deaf in both ears, cried, seeing the otherworldly way Carduelis delivered the song, almost fainting with passion. The Duke clapped the loudest, letting everyone witness his tear-streaked chin.

“What has the world done to you, that you should sing a sad song so well?” he asked later, when Carduelis boarded a shuttle for the first time and traveled away from Tori. The Duke thoughtfully continued, “You did not have such sadness in you when I first heard you sing this song.” Carduelis only shook his head mutely, lying with his cheek on the Duke’s chest, shivering as if from some cold. He tried not to think of Fei’s touch.

“Hold me,” he finally said, and the Duke did, gently as if holding the most precious thing in the world, and perhaps he was.

*

The Duke did indeed treat Carduelis very well. He took him to many different places, to see skies and seas of all different colors, to smell flowers and taste exotic foods. The Duke never asked anything from Carduelis except a song when he felt particularly down, or a dance for a friend. Carduelis knew he would never love again, but he felt for Duke more than he felt for any person other than Fei. He often read Fei’s letter to him secretly before going to bed. It and Carduelis’ affections kept Carduelis bound to the Duke. He wanted to do as Fei told him to, to never make the Duke worry or sad. Yet he knew that something about him saddened the Duke still; perhaps the Duke knew without words that Carduelis would never give him his heart or that Carduelis’ heart already belonged to another. This in turn saddened Carduelis, but like all things, there was nothing he could do. He could not take back his heart from Fei’s love, and the memory of that love consumed him so that even though he gave all he could to the Duke, it would never be enough.

*

In the summer of Carduelis’ twenty-fourth year, the Duke was resting from the heat on the planet Yoko. Carduelis took to the streets out of idleness. He was given a flavored ice cone from a vendor who could barely speak through his admiration. Carduelis, by now used to it, smiled and handed the vendor some change, which the vendor refused to accept. Just as he turned around, his eye caught a familiar face, the glance of a pair of bright blue eyes perhaps, and he turned quickly.

It was Fei. In his neat, clean-pressed suit, he looked almost exactly like the young man Carduelis had seen almost eight years ago. Fei had turned at the same moment, and they stood still, their eyes locked, as the crowds writhed and passed. It was as if they were returning to their first meeting. Carduelis could not look away, and Fei did not either. Time had stopped for both of them in the way it only could for love.

Carduelis was the first to move towards Fei, but in the end they both ran towards each other. Carduelis had thrown the ice on the ground. It splattered behind them, melting immediately on the pavement. The citrus flavoring was fragrant and strong, and to Carduelis, it smelled exactly the way Fei’s arms felt wrapped around him, strong and comforting and like where he belonged. Fei touched his lips to Carduelis’ eyes, to his cheek, to his lips, and Carduelis felt the wounds in his heart heal inside him as if touched by a balm. Carduelis reached up for Fei’s face. So happy it felt like he was in the most exquisite pain, Carduelis whispered, “Don’t leave me again, never leave me, I love you.” Fei pressed his lips to Carduelis’ temple. Carduelis felt him mouth the words, never, never, never.

*

The Duke was not surprised when Carduelis confessed his love for Fei. “I had suspected something had happened, but I did not want to accuse,” he admitted. “I thought you would be happy with me.” Carduelis knew himself to be ungrateful and selfish, and he almost wept to think that the Duke loved him still. He could not find the words to explain to the Duke that he had been happy, but the love was something else; it was an emotion above happiness. “So, am I to lose you as well?” the Duke asked softly, resting his hands in his lap and gazing upon Carduelis with great affection. The Duke was getting old. He was no longer even a middle-aged man, and he looked very tired as he smiled upon Carduelis.

Frightened, Carduelis lay his head upon the Duke’s lap. “I will not go if you do not want me to go,” he said, though he knew how false it sounded to his own ears.

“The Fisherman’s Wife,” the Duke answered. He stroked Carduelis’ head, pausing after each stroke, and it was not until one of the Duke’s warm tears landed on Carduelis’ face that he realized the Duke was crying. Carduelis gave a low sound of pain, holding fast to the Duke’s stilled hand, and pressed it against his own cheek as the Duke said, “It is enough that I love you, that you have stayed with me with your sweet songs and your beauty. I am too old for another Avies, my dear Carduelis. You will have been the last.”

“If I could–” Carduelis replied brokenly, but the Duke laid a finger on Carduelis’ lips.

“You understand now, that sometimes kindness is not enough.” The Duke took a deep, shaky breath and said, “Sing for me one last time the Goldfinch’s Sorrow, for now I know.”

If you would only love me, Carduelis sang, closing his eyes and leaning into the Duke’s palm, if you would only love me, I would do anything.

And so the Duke let him go. The Duke had been kind, eternally kind, kinder than any person Carduelis had ever known. Through his sadness and his defeated love, he had found a depth of compassion Carduelis could only receive, and Carduelis could not ask for more.

*

Carduelis flew to the side of Fei as soon as he could, bringing the box of lemon drops and the old letter with him as his only possessions. Fei opened the box and, with an almost teary laugh, called Carduelis a fool. “They will go stale, and will be no longer good to eat,” Fei warned. “I will have to buy you new ones.”

“I will keep them until they are stone and dust,” Carduelis replied. “It is your love for me.” Touched, Fei kissed him deeply, his hands pulling Carduelis as close as human bodies could go so that there was nothing that could come between them, and Carduelis let the box fall to the floor as he too wrapped his arms around Fei.

The lemon drops lay scattered at their feet, yellow and almost transparent, occasionally catching the light.

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