Death was the promise I had given to the Ichneumon. The emptiness of it was all-encompassing, and all I could see was him before me. Karl's blood was sticky between my fingers and no matter how I thrust my blade toward the Ichneumon I couldn't seem to kill him.
I was so tired. I had given so much, and Karl had destroyed all that remained of anything I had gained. I wanted to sleep. To sleep until people stopped dying and stopped killing others. A part of me knew that I had duties to my people, but a larger part of me said that there were others who could take care of them. Nacola could be Tuuli Thea again. Rei was a great commander. I was not leaving them alone. Why wouldn't they let me sleep?
I frowned. My thoughts disturbed me, and I tried to shake myself from the mire they had become. It was foolish to think that I didn't have a duty to my people; there was no one who could care for them as I could. I was Tuuli Thea and Naga. If Zane was dead, then I had a double responsibility, for, whether or not they would listen to me, I owed the serpiente the full extent of my leadership. I could not shirk my duty. But something in my mind was assuring me I didn't need to worry about that anymore.
"You recognize how it works?"
I looked up to see Vasili standing in front of me. I nodded. "It is the Ichneumon. He is in my mind."
He nodded. "He whispers what you think you want to hear."
I nodded again. I knew, but I really did just want to sleep. I wondered if Vasili would let me sleep; I wondered what he had meant when he encouraged me to trust in the protection of love. He was right to say that death came to all. Those I loved died, and then there was nothing left but a painful wound. "Vasili," I asked. "I'm tired of people leaving me. When can I sleep?"
He touched my throat, in the place where Zane liked to kiss me. "You cannot sleep now, Shardae." He smiled and said patiently, "You are too trusting when killers speak words to you." He took me by the shoulders, spun me around, and thrust me forward. "Trust less," he repeated, "love more."
The ring of metal against metal woke me, and the heavy weight of Karl's dagger felt real in my hand rather than the dream it had seemed a moment before. I blinked and found myself face to face with Zane. His expression was deeply grieved; caught between my dreams and the terrible words Pheeal had spoken, I thought for a moment that he was dead and his spirit had come to me, as his brothers and sister had come to my pyre.
It was the smell of blood that truly wakened me. I hadn't smelled the smoke of the pyre, but the warm copper scent of blood matched the burning sensation that ran up my shoulder.
Zane was pressed so close against me I could breathe his breath. "Alistair," I named him.
His eyes brightened and he said with breathless hope, "Danica?"
I wondered why he was pressed against me so tightly. I took a step back; my mind suddenly expanding to include the rest of the world beyond his face and I realized that I was the one pressed against him. I had backed him against a wall and held him there. My own blade, crossed with his raised in a defensive guard, had pushed back against my shoulder and was the source of the burning pain I felt there. He was bleeding from where my attack had forced his own blade back, held against him so that it would not strike me, until it cut into his own flesh.
The dagger fell from my suddenly numb fingers. I realized my hands were still filthy with Karl's blood. I made a noise of pain I could not have described, and curled in on myself, my stained hands pressed against my chest.
"Danica?" Zane was pulling at me frantically. "Where are you injured?"
I shook my head, but I let him pull my face to his. Other hands were pulling at me as well. Someone was pressing a bandage to my shoulder. I resisted only when they tried to touch my hands. "Bring water," I heard Zane say, and I could only nod against him. He was here with me; I hurt too much to be dead or asleep, so this had to be real.
"Your arm," I said. I had cut him.
"It is taken care of," he replied wryly, and I looked up to see Theodore tying a knot to finish the bandage. He nodded to me, then stepped aside as Erica stepped forward with a canteen of water. "Ah, here we are," Zane said softly. With a careful but firm grasp, he took my hands and held them under the water as Erica let it fall over them. I held my breath as he washed them, breathing deeply again only when I brought my clean hands close to my face to inspect them. I felt so much better, to be rid of the sight of Karl's blood.
"It is stupid," I said, my voice soft. I wasn't sure if I meant the severity of my reaction to having blood on my hands as I sat in the midst of soldiers who had experienced this many times, or if I meant Karl himself forcing me to the action with his fanaticism, or even if I meant my thoughtless attack of Zane.
Zane nodded, raised my hands to his mouth, and pressed his lips to the back of my fingers. I wasn't sure what he was agreeing to, but his gaze was warm, and I looked back at him. I hadn't expected to ever see him again. Trust less, Vasili had cautioned, love more. I turned my hands to twine my fingers with Zane's. Leaning forward, I kissed his cheek. He turned toward me. There was a soft wonder on his face, and he disentangled one of his hands from mine to brush it over my hair and pull me closer. "I thought I had lost you," he murmured.
"He told me you were dead," I confessed in my turn. Zane's hand stilled in my hair and we breathed in each other for a moment.
The world intruded, as it always did. I was aware of the sound of combat somewhere beyond us. The screech and clash of metal, the rising murmur of voices, and the smell of blood had me pulling back from Zane and pushing myself to my feet. I pulled Zane up with me and we both watched, along with a crowd of avians with only a few serpiente, as Karashan fought Pheeal.
There was a certain beauty to the way they moved, both masters of the martial form. Pheeal fought with dagger and spear; Karashan was armed only with her blade. Other avians and serpiente gathered, forming a circle around the combatants, but none interfered. Karashan and Pheeal were moving so quickly it was hard to follow their every move and the dance seemed to fade into a blur of constant motion.
No matter how he fought, Pheeal was not going to win this battle. Even if he struck down Karashan, the Royal Flight and Karashan's own Ravens would tear him to pieces. I wondered why he continued to fight; he did so with a grin on his face, white fangs bared in a desperate smile and red eyes alight with mad joy.
Rei landed on the balcony, taking in the scene immediately. His eyes sought me, and he smiled to see me safe.
I was looking at Rei and I missed the striking of the final blow. When I heard the gasps and cheers from the onlookers, I looked back to find Karashan holding Pheeal's spear in one hand, her own blade sunk deep in the Ichneumon's abdomen.
Karashan let the spear and her opponent fall to the floor. Her face was weary. "Leave my blade there," she said to her Ravens as they moved to help her. She looked up at me and Zane. "I caused this," she said, "with my own blindness." She paused. "I hereby resign my position as the leader of Raven Flight." Her Ravens, scattered around the room, raised their voices in protest. Karashan raised her hand and there was silence. "It is for the Tuuli Thea or Andreios to appoint my successor." She stepped forward, walking across the room to kneel before me and Zane. "I have no right to ask anything of you, but I would ask your permission to spend my days working with the other old soldiers who are yet resistant to the idea of the peace you have created."
Zane's hand squeezed my shoulder. "Rise," I said to Karashan.
"You have the same right as any creature to approach us and ask what you will," Zane reminded her.
I looked up at him. "And it is our pleasure to grant it."
There was some difficulty afterwards. After this dark night, the sun would rise on the morning of the festival of Namir-da, the longest day of the year. Rei urged me to return to the Keep and appear before my people there. It would be faster for myself to go to the Keep by wing and for the serpiente to travel directly back to the palace to finish preparations for the celebration, which would be heightened this year with the release of the tension the appearance of the Ichneumon had brought. But I did not wish to let Zane go from my sight.
Zane seemed to feel the same. His hands had not left my person since we had been reunited. The touches were innocent enough, usually on the arm or perhaps the small of my back, but I could tell the constancy of them was starting to push the tolerance of my avian soldiers.
I sighed. "Rei is right. I should go to the Keep."
Zane's fingers tightened around my elbow for a moment. "Then I shall go with you."
I looked up at him, my heart in my throat at what I thought he was suggesting. He looked grim indeed, so I thought my guess was correct. I turned to face him fully, the golden wings of my demi form spreading behind me.
Zane closed his eyes and squeezed my hand a last time. I shivered as the man in front of me slipped away to be replaced by my childhood nightmare. The cobra's hood was not spread but he reared up almost half my own height and flicked his tongue at me. I looked into bright red eyes that had recently become familiar and dear to me. I smiled and held out my hands to Zane. His tongue whispered against the soft skin of my inner wrist and I almost giggled. The levity vanished however as he began to coil himself around me and I realized how heavy he still was. It was going to look rather silly if I couldn't even lift off from the ground.
Rei moved up behind me, slowly. "Dani," he said, voice soft with warning. "You shouldn't..."
But Rei's caution was enough to push me to attempt this and I didn't hear the rest of his warning. Crouching low, I pushed off from the ground.
My flight was unbalanced- for several moments I wobbled, undignified- but I quickly adjusted to the additional weight. Zane shivered against me. Rei lead my escort as four members of the Royal Flight formed up around us. I wasn't sure as to the direction in which the Keep lay, but Rei guided me and once we were above the trees it was easier to find my way. The moon was our only light; part of me ached for the dawning of the day to come, if only to end the darkness that much more quickly.
I landed in the middle of the lower court. The court was well lit as avians and serpiente moved around preparing the place for our own midsummer celebration. They scattered back from my arrival, their voices raised in surprise and, I was gratified to hear, pleasure as they recognized me. Zane unwound from around me and shifted. His eyes fixed on mine and his hand found mine, twining our fingers together.
I heard Nacola's voice and I had to forcefully tear my eyes from those of the man I loved in order to greet her. She completely ignored Zane standing beside me and came straight up to me to take my face in her hands. It was a rare display of emotion and I was rather shocked. I was more shocked to realize that she had not in fact been ignoring Zane but had recognized his presence and had permitted herself to approach so closely to him.
"Thank you," Nacola said. She turned to Zane, her eyes narrowed. "I did not think I would ever thank a cobra for returning my daughter to me."
Zane bowed his head. "I believe she was in fact the one who brought us back to you," he said wryly. "But I appreciate your words, Nacola Shardae, and I hope there will continue to be an understanding between us."
Nacola raised a single eyebrow and a politic smile curled her lip. "We shall see," she murmured. "For now," she turned to me, "it is good to see you well, my child. Come, you must need rest. It is the middle of the night, and, for now, the days only grow longer."
I resisted the pull of her hand. When I spoke, my voice rang through the court. "I came to reassure you that I am well, and that the threat represented by the Ichneumon is ended." There was a scattering of cheers through the court. I looked at Nacola. "But my duties as Naga call me away this night and I must bid you farewell again, mother."
Her previous expression had been relatively open in her relief at seeing me, but Nacola's face became as unreadable as stone at my words. "You must do as you see fit, Tuuli Thea," she said. She stepped back and bowed to me. Turning, she left the court.
I had become numbed to Nacola's rejection, but from the tightness of his fingers in mine I knew Zane desired to embrace me to soothe away the sting of it. I turned to him. His garnet eyes were molten and bright in the darkness. "I am loved," I said to him, my voice soft. He seemed surprised, but then he smiled.
Zane stepped closer until we were almost touching. "Your alistair," he named himself, "would protect you from all who would wound you, even if only with their words."
I smiled at him and raised my hand to cup his cheek. He closed his eyes and leaned into my touch. I loved him so much I would not have minded if he had embraced me fully in full view of the avian court, but the fact that he refrained was part of the reason I loved him. "Come," I murmured. "Let us be on our way."
We walked out of the court and retook to the air in the privacy of an upper balcony; taking off from higher up helped my departure from the ground appear less awkward and I wobbled only once before my wings caught the air steadily.
The serpiente palace was easy to find in the night, as it was lit with torches. The preparations for Namir-da were well underway, even before the dawn of midsummer. We landed in the synkal and the serpiente broke into thunderous applause to see us. I realized it was Zane's bravery they applauded, having taken to the air with me. He grinned and made a sweeping bow. Pulling me into his embrace, he kissed me soundly. I laughed, giddy with emotion.
We celebrated the sunrise with dancing. I was in the middle of everything, Zane at my side. Serpiente clapped around us as I utilized what little my short lessons had taught me and danced the meager steps I knew. Zane was astounded when I took the first melos as it was offered by one of my classmates in request for a dance. The look he bestowed on me as I danced the simple steps lit a fire in my chest. I could feel it burning under all my ribs and licking up over my cheeks. I stepped forward in a challenge he quickly answered.
We danced half the day away as we wandered through the marketplace. All around us, our people were happy. I saw Chundra teaching Messua dance steps; I saw Karashan listening avidly to a serpiente storyteller; I saw Rei speaking with Adelina, their heads bent together.
When the sleepless night overtook us and our energy vanished, Zane and I napped in a shadowed alcove, the sounds of the festival still washing over us. The warmth of the afternoon was comforting, as was the steady beat of Zane's heart under my ear. Later we would go into the banquet, and we would watch Galen and Irene dance, but for now Zane's arms were around me and I closed my eyes.