Chapter 1: Black Tar and Burgundy Sheets
My breath caught in my throat as I pushed back the burgundy curtains to enter the dark, warm guest room. Brightly colored silks adorned the walls and chaise, soft woven rugs across the floor, and a plush bed, covered in luxurious pillows, decorated the inside. These rooms, found throughout the palace in Wyvern's Court, were often used for serpiente guests, usually of the Dancer's Guild. It was exactly the environment they would make for themselves in the Wyvern's Nest, and before at Sha'Mehay. However, the current resident was not a dancer, or a merchant, or even a friend.
Nearly the entire Cobriana line in one room, all for one visitor. Lying all but dead to the world on the burgundy bed was a young woman, maybe five or so years older than I. She had lighter skin than the avians I grew up around, but darker than the falcons who had delivered her. Her hair looked almost identical to my own taut black curls long and splayed out around her head like a halo. The only difference there was the shimmering red highlights dyed by magic. It looked like a fire scorching across smoke. She had been called Hai.
Every bit of her was Cobriana, except for a few things here and there, and one big thing. Her wings lay broken and battered behind her back, stained and dripping with an endless black tar that seemed to vanish a few moments after it dripped in huge clumps against the ground and bed. The tar kept bubbling to the surface of her angry, fiery wounds. I imagined she must be in incredible agony, awake or not.
Diente Zane and Tuuli Thea Danica, my parents and the only people whose advice I wanted most in the world, stood stoically in a far corner of the room. A united front, as always, perfect mixture of both worlds. Mother looked wonderingly at the form on the bed. Among the serpiente, she always made a conscious attempt to display her emotions freely. My Aunt Irene leaned lazily against Zane, anxiously running her fingers through her long, black hair. The melos tied around her waist, along with the revealing emerald green dress she wore, told me she'd run straight from Wyvern's Nest. I wondered idly if Salem was following close behind.
I crossed the room to stand next to my parents, opposite Kel and the falcon who called herself Darien. As I got closer, I examined Hai's face. She had the features of the gods and goddesses, demi or otherwise, associated with stories I'd heard the serpiente tell. I'd come to associate those features with falcons, with Nicias and Kel. My own face was more angular, more avian. My cobra parentage rounded my face more than my mother's, but Hai's looked like it had come straight from paintings or mosaics depicting Kiesha's days. I watched, as if an optical illusion, as her face changed emotion with ever angle- from serene, to angry, sadness, frozen in fear, and, amusingly, a smirk. I shuddered.
Magic unnerved me.
“Anjay and I were lovers,” Darien began her explanation. Irene snorted loudly, interrupting. Darien turned her head crisply towards her.
“Yes, I gathered that much,” she retorted. I resisted a chuckle- despite the obvious falcon wings, folded behind her broken and burned, Hai was as Cobriana as I was. My uncle, Anjay, was the only cobra to ever be a guest on the White Island of Ahnmik. It wasn't hard to figure it out.
Darien continued. “I was going to send word to him, but he was killed before I was able.”
The atmosphere in the room shifted slightly. Anjay had been killed by my mother's brother, Xavier, afer he'd killed my mother's original alistair, for revenge after an avian killed my aunt, Sisal, and her unborn child, after someone killed someone on their side after some killed someone else after so much revenge and bloodshed stretching back a thousand years so that it was untraceable. My family had a rule about not blaming each other, or using strong words. There was too much at stake, and by now we loved each other too much to approach those topics like that. It always felt so odd when others did so callously.
I hardly noticed that Darien had continued talking the whole time. “Shortly after Hai's birth, the Empress branded me a traitor, and I was locked away until Nicias freed me. Quemak, mongrel children, are forbidden to be conceived.”
Mongrel children. I swallowed hard at the description of not just my cousin lying out on the bed, but myself. I wondered how much she and I felt in common, being of two different worlds, yet also of none. It was an ache that no one else could ever understand. At least, I had thought.
My mother stepped forward, extending a hand to the falcon. “Thank you for bringing us to her, of course she is welcome here,” she said warmly, and Darien gave her her hand, smiling wryly.
It was no secret that falcons made everyone in Wyvern's Court nervous. They were of the same origins as the serpiente, but allied with the avians in the war for years. Since our peace, they had been nothing but nuisance and pain. And regarded us as little more than insects. Still, two members of our Wyvern's of Honor were born falcons, and their son was my best friend. None of us were a inherently mistrustful people.
“Of course,” my father answered, his face a stone mask. It was a trick he'd learned from years mingling among the avian court. They expected everyone to wear one, physically or emotionally. He was far from a master at concealing his feelings, but adept nonetheless. I, however, had twenty years of being his daughter to practice in reading him.
His eyes were trained on Hai's face, unmoving, unyielding. Studying him, I could guess everything he was feeling. He was looking back in time, the last imprint his older brother had left on this world. His last gift, in a way. He undoubtedly felt a strong desire to protect his brother's only daughter. At the same time, he was looking at the previous Arami's eldest child. The only possible threat to his daughter's rule. A potential pretender to the throne- Anjay was beloved by the people. But he was also beloved by my father, and his child would be too.
Salem burst into the room at that instant, pushing curtains aside and practically running over to his mother's side. I noted his long hair tied up in what must have been a time consuming process, his golden yellow melos around his waist, and side-slit pants, I wondered what possible dance he could have been practicing.
He took his mother's hands in his own, asking questions with his eyes only. Irene gestured to the bed, and Salem turned to look.
“Son, meet your eldest cousin, Hai.”
Salem, without missing a beat, took a large step over to the bed, staring quizzically at Hai's Cobriana hair and jaw, coupled with her falcon wings and nose. He glanced up at Darien, still wearing her demi-form wings, for a moment, before back down to our cousin. With his back turned towards me, I couldn't see his face. I wondered if he thought the same thoughts that plagued my father.
As if having read my mind, Darien repeated the same statement she and Nicias had made earlier. “Unfortunately, she's unlikely to ever awaken. Nicias and I have tried everything possible, and she refuses to be pried from her place.” She met eyes with my father, her silver eyes turning violet. “I only hope that here, in this land of freedom and peace and serpents and birds, she has sweeter dreams.”
I shuddered again.
Salem, ever the friendly dancer, smiled diplomatically at Darien. “Of course! She's family, and she belong with the Cobriana.” He stated it like undisputed fact, and I knew we all agreed with him. Salem moved closer to the bed, taking a downy blanket and spreading it across Hai's body. For a moment, she looked serene again.
Salem shouted in pain, jumping back and grasping his arm guardedly. He looked back at Hai, eyebrows furrowed in confusion. He let his arm go, and I watched as a slash formed across his bicep, blood beading and beginning to flow slowly down. Irene gasped in horror.
Darien crossed the distance to stand between Salem and Hai. She seemed almost more protective of Salem than her own daughter.
“I am so sorry, I had no clue she would lash out with her magic,” she explained. Before Salem had a moment to protest, Darien grabbed his arm and closed her eyes. When she opened them, they gleamed purple again. She removed her hands from his arm, and not only was the cut completely healed, but the blood seemingly evaporated. Salem rubbed absentmindedly at his arm and glanced back at Hai, whose face was now warped in anger.
“I think the surroundings here are still unfamiliar to her. She has never been around a cobra before, much less every last one left. I'm sorry,” she bowed her head in defeat. A moment later, she turned to Kel, smiling again. “I do have an idea, if you would help me?”
Kel tensed, but nodded. I wondered exactly how well they had known each other, if Darien was the only thing Kel remembered from her previous life.
Darien scooped up Hai effortlessly in her arms, wrapping her in the Cobriana black blanket.
“Royal blood calms her. Would it bother you if I let her stay near Nicias, at least for now?” she asked. I couldn't help but notice the way she bat her eyelashes at Kel.
Kel visibly hesitated around the phrase “royal blood” being used to refer to her son, but agreed nonetheless. She bowed to my parents, dismissing herself to follow Darien as she simply left. I could hear soft, but curt, conversation as they disappeared down the hall.
For a moment, we all stood in pained silence. There had been a lot in such a short amount of time, and we were unsure how to react. Within half an hour, we had found out that we had a missing family member, of parentage that was so foreign it felt like myth, and watched her be carried away. My head was still spinning, struggling to catch up. It felt unreal. Salem was the first to speak up, with a raised voice.
“What are we doing?” he asked incredulously, gesturing towards the empty doorway. “Oliza, that's our cousin. She's every bit Cobriana as you and me! We should be insisting she be at home here, in the palace!”
Me more than you, I resisted responding. It killed me that someone who might understand the feeling of not belonging I had was in the city, but that I might never get to speak with her. My small family somehow felt smaller the second she was taken away.
“Salem, I want her here too, but I don't know anything about what she needs, and her mother thinks it would be better for her elsewhere. I know next to nothing of falcon magic,” I admitted, my throat tight. Nicias was my only real experience with falcons, though my parents had told me of Kel and Andreios'
I think part of why Salem wanted her there so bad was a loneliness he didn't want to admit. Maybe not in the same way I felt, he still had cobra family like my father and his mother, but still lonely. Cobras were incredibly social people. And Salem could be such a hothead.
“Oliza's right. And there's nothing saying she won't be comfortable here, eventually. But for now, we know nothing about how to make her feel at home,” Irene added, reaching out to take her son into her arms. After a warm hug, I reached out to take his hand.
“Come. Let us see if we can't try to find her and Kel. Maybe we can visit her wherever she's staying for now,” I said, pulling him slightly in the direction of the curtains. He obliged, following me close behind. I heard my father and aunt begin talking in hushed whispers as the drapes fell behind us.
I know it kind of sucked but I decided it made the most sense, chronologically, to be from Oliza's POV and she had the least to feel about Anjay. I think Zane will narrate the next one. I have most of Zane and Irene's conversation after this, I just need to iron out some details. So stay tuned for that. I can be found on tumblr @graphicallyill!
Chapter 2: Fiery Neglect and Icy Ignorance
Zane and Irene talk about loss, consequences, and could-have-beens.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The second Oliza and Salem left the room, I collapsed onto the bed where moments before a ghost had lain. Or the last trace of a ghost long thought to have moved on.
My beloved brother's only daughter, only child, his last mark left on this world. She'd been conceived in his final days, when he was acting as diplomat to the falcons on Ahnmik, attempting to reestablish a relationship with them for the first time in over a century. He had been trying to make peace, treaties, and allies ever since he had begun to take control as Arami, even extending a hand to the Obsidian Guild. I couldn't help but think of this young, half-falcon girl simultaneously as a gift and a curse. After all, what kind of gift is ripped away before you ever even knew it existed?
My ever caring wife sat next to me on the bed, placing a comforting hand on my shoulder, and another on my thigh as if to stabilize me. I smiled sadly at her, knowing that physical affection was never her strongest area in expressing herself. She knew, however, that I not only craved it, I needed it, and I always appreciated her efforts. I needed her more then than I had in a long time.
Anjay's daughter. I could scarcely comprehend he concept. I was only sixteen years old when he'd died over twenty-five years ago. To me, he had always been infinite, undying. Even at forty-one years, I still thought of him as somewhat heroic and mythical. And he'd been ripped from me. In a matter of days, I lost a sister and her unborn child, and my brother. I was driven to participate in a violence I could never comprehend completely. I nearly killed my wife before ever truly knowing her, nearly ended every chance I'd had at peace Anjay and I both sought.
Would he have gone on that suicide quest if he knew he would have been a father?
Irene paced, removing her melos and draping it gently around her shoulders like a shawl. For a moment, I saw our mother, hovering around us anxiously waiting for word of Anjay's return. Word we never received. My sister was blessed with a much more level head than me, but I could see how much she had been shaken. Anjay had rode to Hawk's Keep the moment he returned from Ahnmik. We didn't even know he had taken a falcon lover.
Irene started crying soft, silent tears that fell down her face in perfect arcs across her cheeks. I could sense their bittersweet taste from across our distance. She clutched her heart, softly whispering, “Anjay.”
I extended my hand towards her, which she waved a way. The tears began to fall freer, more frantically, and the pacing followed suit. “No, thank you, no. I just, I need a minute,” Irene cried out, running her fingers through her hair. I let her continue, listening as she made the occasional distressed noise. I was itching to scream myself. My kind is not suited to suppressing ourselves, and I was far from any exception to that rule. Still, I restrained myself to balling up my fists and seething every few moments.
Eventually, Irene sat down at my other side. I wrapped an arm around her in a brotherly fashion and she leaned her head against me. We'd always been the closest of our siblings. Now we were the only two left. And there were only four- five cobras at all.
We felt very lonely for such a social people.
“I haven't cried about Anjay in so long,” Irene admitted.
“I haven't had much reason to. He'd given me his vision for peace, and since we've achieved it... I felt like part of him lived on through it,” I replied. I didn't remember my father all too well, and my older brother had steered the direction of my rule long after he'd passed.
“More than that lived on, I guess. We've had a niece this whole time. Do you think Ahnmik would have ever let us know she existed?” Irene mused. I gave a harsh chuckle.
“Syfka and Araceli both paid us a 'visit' when the girl was, what, five? I doubt they ever planned on letting her go anywhere,” I replied bitterly. “A cobra raised by falcons. I wonder what she would even think of us.” Falcons were about as secretive of their distaste of us as we were of them. Perhaps distaste was even too strong of a word. Falcons viewed us as a nuisance, an insect in their world. Hai was likely raised to hate us, if not herself as well.
“Not that it even matters. If what her mother says is true, she's only brought us another corpse to mourn. One that never rots or burns,” Irene added, and I nodded. She would be nothing more than a reminder that she existed, and we never got to be a part of her life. I wondered why falcons didn't just mercy kill the ones who ended up catatonic like her. Perhaps out of some hope their dark god would let them slip through his grasp back to our world? I didn't fully understand the Ecl Andreios and Kel spoke of on rare occasion.
I wondered if Kel knew anything about Hai. She'd mentioned once before meeting Anjay, and Darien seemed very familiar to her. In her previous life, had she kept Hai from us? Most of it had been washed away with magic, but maybe... I would have to ask her later.
Suddenly, Irene was wracked with another wave of sobs. This time, Danica came to her aid as well, kneeling on the floor to hold her friend's hand. Irene's free one went up to her mouth to choke the weeping as it came forth.
“What is it?” I couldn't help from asking.
Irene got a few more whimpers out, taking deep breaths to steady herself. She laughed, a kind of chuckle she had when she was sad and amused at the source. “Mom was so excited to have grandchildren. With Sisal...” Irene trailed off. Sisal's death still haunted us both, and our mother was devastated. “And with me, when I told her about Salem, she hovered like a hawk, no offense, Danica. She never even got to be excited for you and Dani with Oliza.” I could see where she was headed, and the tears were already welling in my eyes. “Mom could have known Hai. Mom could have seen Hai at least become a child.”
Darien had divulged her imprisonment immediately after Hai's birth. I wondered who raised her, if she'd had a mother figure, or even a real guardian who cared for her. I felt Hai was already deprived of knowing her cobra family, and maybe of any real family at all. Just as deprived as our mother had been of her grandchildren.
That made me furious.
Syfka and Araceli and their White Empress got to play god on their island because they retained some connection to their dark magic. Meanwhile the rest of us mortals had to fall in line or be crushed underneath their ambitions. Because what could you do against a thousand year old being with such strong magic they could take away everything you had if they wanted to? Someone so old they remember when your line was created....
I hadn't realized how much my face must have morphed with rage, because Danica went up to wipe away my tears. She locked her golden eyes in mine, murmuring “Zane”, and my face relaxed it's tension.
“They kept her away from us. Maybe she wouldn't be in this state if she had had family who cared for her. Maybe...” I trailed off. Danica pulled my face into her hands, her warmth spreading through my whole soul.
“I know,” she whispered. “I know. Or maybe not? But we can only work with what we have right now.” I took my wife's and my sister's hands in my own, squeezing them both for strength.
“Mom would want us to make sure she had the best care,” Irene added, wiping away her own tears. I nodded. Irene snorted laughter again, replying "With all of Anjay's 'peacemaking expeditions', maybe there's a black viper somewhere in Obsidian Guild." I grimaced at the joke, and Irene shoved at my shoulder until I smiled. It was a funny thought at least, but considering recent events... I just wanted to know all my kin.
“I miss him,” I admitted. I more than missed him. I needed his guidance and his insight. I wished he could have gotten to know my daughter, or his. I wish he could have seen Irene get married, or Salem's birth.
“I miss all of them,” she replied. Hai brought with her an air of isolation I hadn't felt in so long. I grew up with five siblings. I watched them all die. My mother watched every cobra around her have the life extinguished from them, mourned her own husband, buried her own children, and I never got to ask her how she managed to carry on. “At least Gregory knew peace. I wonder what kind of man he would have grown up to be, had he been able to live it.”
“Carson, too.” Our youngest brother. Only eleven years old when he'd died. It was somehow sadder, now, knowing that they would have lived long, happy lives. Lived to have mates and children and grandchildren.
“Or what kind of mom Sisal would have been,” she said with a sad sigh. I tightened my grip around her protectively. I remembered her fear when she told us she was pregnant, the memory of Sisal's gruesome death still fresh in our minds.
In a different world, I imagined all of us living long lives in peace. Sisal's child, Anjay raising Hai, Carson and Gregory playing with baby Salem and Oliza. That itself was a victory. No cobra since the time of Kiesha could even promise their children that kind of future.
I glanced over at Danica, who was displaying a rare, non-forced show of emotion. Silent tears streamed down her cheeks, and I imagined she was remembering her own losses. I wrapped my free arm around her and placed a loving kiss against her curly golden hair. She squeezed my leg in response.
Anjay's daughter was the only connection I could ever have to the alternate world where we all had lived. I was determined that even if she would never come to, we would care for her. I needed to know more about her and her endless sleep.
I stood, extending hands to my wife and sister. Danica took it, standing next to me, but Irene hesitated.
“Come on. Let's find Darien and Kel.”
Still trying to get my bearings. I hope this one was better!