It was too late to back out of this, but I could not yet force my mind to accept the arrangement I had agreed to and all it entailed.
I was startled from my reverie by a knock on the door to my room.
I went quickly to answer it, expecting Rei.
It was Erica.
"My lady," she said with a bow, and continued delivering her message with obvious reluctance. "Karashan wishes to see you. She says it is urgent." Erica's eyes flickered sideways. "She is waiting in the courtyard."
I sighed. I had told Rei to tell her to stand down from forming her plans for attacking the serpiente; knowing Karashan she wanted to confirm the order in person. But... "The courtyard?" I repeated.
Erica nodded. "Yes, Tuuli Thea. She has a visitor she would like that you should meet."
Erica lowered her eyes and shifted her feet, perhaps caught, as I was, between the sudden thought of the visitor currently on his way to the Keep, and the remembrance of the previous visitor I had greeted in the courtyard. The two incidences were not unrelated, on more than one level, and I had a sudden odd and unpleasant feeling that this unforeseen guest was also connected to what had me so nervous this day. "Visitor?"
Erica hesitated again and I sighed internally in frustration; obviously this visitor was not avian or they would have been waiting in the second floor reception hall, but getting this message from her was as difficult as trying to convince myself of the reality of the arrangement I had agreed to and I felt suddenly tired. It had been a long day.
"He is a visitor from a distant land, my lady." Her voice had started out still hesitant, but Erica continued more firmly, "I will tell Karashan that you will meet with her later. It would be better, in any case, to wait." She bowed and turned away.
"Wait." In my head I ran through what she had said - and also what she wasn't saying. Karashan was ultimately dedicated to fighting the war; this visitor was probably related to that in some way. Erica didn't herself have the authority to tell Karashan to wait, but she was subtly giving me her advice: she didn't think I should meet Karashan without Rei at my back. That was a troubling thought, unless she meant merely that I should wait until the ground party Rei was escorting was here; the arrival of Zane would make whatever Karashan had to say about the war more obviously pointless than it already was.
But... Sitting in my bedroom worrying was getting me nowhere; I certainly wasn't going to be able to get any rest until I heard from Rei. And... I had to meet Karashan. I had to convince her that there was another alternative to the endless fighting and death. If I couldn't convince her, then how could I hope to convince the rest of my people? "I will meet with them. Have the Royal Flight standing by."
Erica eyed me for a long moment before she bowed her head. "Yes, Tuuli Thea." She shifted and she was gone in a flurry of wings.
I sighed. Perhaps I was making more trouble by not waiting for Rei, but I had to deal with Karashan on my own.
I met Karl as my escort at the end of the hall and we flew down to the courtyard together. The display of arms was less than had greeted Irene Cobriana, but half the Royal Flight was present as well as a goodly portion of Karashan's own Flight. I was pleased to note that there were enough members of my guard missing that Rei's absence was not immediately noticeable; despite her recent rise to the position, and the tumultuous political environment that had lately engulfed us all, Erica was showing an admirable level of awareness of the situation and a good head for strategy.
Karashan and a cloaked figure stood in the middle of the courtyard. Karashan stood at parade rest and looked extremely pleased with herself. The other figure - a man, I saw as I neared, with sandy hair - was leaning casually on a long polearm he was using as a staff. There were grooves in the top end of the staff for the fixation of a blade, though it was currently empty; an absent part of my wondered what kind of blade it was this man usually wielded. He seemed far too comfortable with the length of wood.
I noticed Erica falling in behind me, opposite Karl, as I approached the pair. "Karashan," I greeted. "Who is this visitor you have brought to meet with me?"
She bowed. "My Tuuli Thea, as we discussed before your coronation, the only way to truly succeed against the serpiente is to do something completely unpredictable." She frowned, remembering, as she said, "Our tactics, our soldiers' abilities are all well known to our enemy. I thought, perhaps, if we could have a fresh viewpoint - one, also, that does not come with a falcon's strings attached - it would give us that edge we need to finally win this war and eliminate our opposition once and for all."
The desire in her voice sent shivers running down my spine and, combined with my own nerves, made my response harsher than it should have been. "I thought Andreios made it clear to you that I had formed a different plan and that we would not be going forward with your attack."
She paused, blinking for a moment as she tried to comprehend my unwarranted hostility. "Tuuli Thea," she began, "even if you have a different plan for the current attack, I feel certain that we shall have need of this man's expertise in the future." She gestured to her companion. "My lady, may I present Tavi, hunter from the east." The man bowed his head to me. "My cousin Darzee tells me great tales of the services he has performed in their land."
Tavi smiled humorlessly, the gesture revealing ivory-white eyeteeth almost too long for his otherwise human mouth, and said in a rough voice, "If you know Darzee you know not to listen to him too much. Though should you require any demonstration of my abilities I would be glad to give it." He looked up at me and I saw for the first time that his eyes were red; red as a cobra's and far colder. I shivered again.
"Karashan, I fail to see what you think this man can offer us." I congratulated myself that my voice was even, though I could not repress the edge of enmity in it. "I have already taken measures that will bring an end to the war." I frowned. "I apologize if, when my plan was presented to you, it was not made clear how pivotal it was going to be to finally resolving our conflict."
Her smile faltered but Karashan rallied. "My lady, you have not seen what he can do! Tavi is a master with the glaive but he is also, like us, a lifelong enemy of the serpiente."
"I don't-" I said with impatience but was silenced by the hunter himself as Tavi shifted his form. Erica dove between me and the visitor, but Karl knew immediately that I was in no danger.
Tavi was small, but long and supple, and covered with light brown fur the same color his hair had been. His eyes were still red, and he bushed his long tail, shaking it back and forth. "A mongoose," Karl said wonderingly. I glanced at him and he elaborated, "Common ones live in areas near here but I never knew there were shifters of that type. They hunt snakes, and nothing else."
Karashan practically beamed at him and fixed me with a look that seemed to say that she had been trying to get me to understand this very thing. "Tavi has never failed to kill a cobra," she added to Karl's words. "Without their king, the disorganized serpiente will be far easier to destroy."
As it had done only yesterday, my blood turned to ice. "Karashan, may I speak with you privately?"
Confused, she nodded. "Of course, Tuuli Thea."
We took to wing, retreating to a second-floor balcony where I could still keep an eye on the courtyard. Erica followed, but hung back enough to give us the illusion of true privacy.
"Karashan," I asked, almost unable to keep the desperation from my voice, "Can you see no possibility for peace between us and the serpiente?"
She frowned and when she spoke her voice was weary and older than her face. "The serpiente are deceitful, my lady. We can never trust peace with them; they will use it to destroy us. You know as well as I how they betrayed Alasdair. You know as well as I how they have fought dishonorably. With their guile they will promise anything, but they will never keep their word. Even if you believe they are sincere when they speak, you cannot trust their actions once you take your eyes from them."
I flinched, Karashan's last words echoing my own thoughts too closely. And... I looked down at the sandy haired hunter standing in the courtyard. He had shifted back and was talking amiably with Karl. There was much promise in what Karashan had brought me. This Tavi never failed to kill a cobra... and I would be free of what I had promised, what I wasn't sure I wanted to do.
But, as I looked down at this Tavi, in my mind I held a dying boy's hand in my own and sang to him softly. I turned to Karashan. "This hunter of yours may bring an end to war, but he will not bring an end to the killing." I closed my eyes. "He will not bring an end to the death of children."
I opened my eyes and looked at Karashan. She was silent for a long moment. "As long as they are not the children of our people, I can accept that," she said slowly. "The children of serpents grow up to be snakes themselves."
I shook my head. "There will be no more killing while I am Tuuli Thea." My voice was firm, and Karashan looked at me with respect.
But there was still a caution in her voice. "My lady, how can you be sure?"
I raised my chin. "I have taken Zane Cobriana as my alistair."
Her dumbfounded silence was the only answer to this statement that I received as Rei landed beside us. He looked windblown and frazzled and not in the least bit pleased. I was also not particularly pleased to see him at the moment; I had hoped I could finish with Karashan before his party had arrived.
"What is going on?" he asked shortly, his eyes fixed on Karashan.
"Karashan was just about to take her guest out of my Keep," I responded, just as short. "He is not welcome."
"What guest?" Rei queried, his gaze roaming the balcony and settling on me as if searching me for injury.
"In the courtyard, the..." I turned to look down and realized that the courtyard was empty. My heart stopped beating for a moment as I whirled back to Karashan. "Where is he?" I demanded.
She was more frayed than I and had had less time to deal with it.
In the face of her stuttering silence I turned to Rei instead, repeating, with a different direction to the inquest, "Where is he?"
He knew what I was talking about and answered quickly, his eyes darting between me and Karashan. "Seventh floor, as you recommended, in the northern rooms."
I took to wing almost before he had finished, and before he could catch up. I landed on the seventh floor and was moving toward the guarded door as soon as my feet touched the ground. The guard saw me coming and tried to stop me, but I brushed past him and into the room.
Zane was standing by the balcony door, watching as the sun set. He whirled at my hasty entrance, tense, only relaxing marginally when he recognized me, his hand still reaching for weapons that had been removed from him. I scanned the room but did not see the hunter and managed a deep breath.
"Danica?" Zane asked, his voice clipped and tense.
I opened my mouth to respond, but the light sound of footfalls on the balcony interrupted me. Zane's attention was pulled there, but the sudden appearance of Karashan and Rei behind me had him backing up against the wall warily, his eyes flashing between us.
The footfalls on the balcony belonged to Tavi. The hunter must have scaled the Keep, though I could not imagine how that was even possible, and he had taken the time to affix the blade to his weapon; the glaive blade was over a foot long and curved slightly, with a wicked looking serrated hook on the back edge. It shone with the gleam of freshly applied am'haj as he pulled the weapon from where it had rested over his back as he climbed. His eyes lit on Zane and flashed with eagerness as he grinned.
Zane recognized him. Not personally, but he knew what the hunter represented, where he had come from. I saw that recognition in the sudden tightness of his features, and then his eyes turned to me and they were full of despair and betrayal.
He thought I had done this. That I had brought him here to kill him. But... why should he think otherwise? Hadn't I considered the possibility? Hadn't I wanted to have a way out of our deal? My own feeling of culpability kept my denial from falling from my tongue readily, and Zane bowed his head, sagging back against the wall in defeat. He had given everything within him for our peace and if I would betray him now, then there was nothing left. He'd said he would slit his own wrists if it would end this conflict, and here, now, he agreed with Karashan that there was no other way. Faced with death he didn't fight but accepted it.
"No!" I cried out, though even I did not know what it was I denied - Zane's acceptance, the very existence of the hunter who was advancing with his weapon, or the appearance of half a dozen of the Royal Flight on the balcony behind him, led by Karl.
Even if I didn't know what I was doing, it didn't seem to matter. Rei commanded his Flight to stand down, and, looking puzzled, they obeyed; either my shout or the last vestige of his tenacity startled Zane into movement. Grabbing the nearest object, a low table, he threw it at his advancing opponent and disappeared.
I knew that he hadn't actually disappeared, but my mind almost couldn't follow to the next obvious conclusion and, as Rei pulled me back from the dusty black coils that whisked over the floor, I truly wished he could have disappeared instead. The cobra hissed, hood flared and garnet eyes focused on his opponent. His jaw was parted to reveal the most slender, deadly white fangs I could imagine. Nothing I had seen or felt or believed about Zane prepared me for that, and, startled out of my immobility by Rei, I retreated willingly.
Tavi shifted as well, the slender brown-furred body a blur as he dodged and dove around the cobra, never staying in one place long enough to fall prey to one of Zane's strikes but also unable to get a good hold on the cobra with his own long, white fangs.
A murmur rose from the watchers at the balcony as the cobra struck again and again fruitlessly, each strike and each writhing dodge moving the combatants wildly around the open space of the floor. Even though the whispering must have been fear induced, there was no evidence of fear in the room. It was hidden deeply behind calm faces, and in that moment my own fear spiked hard. I feared what lurked behind the placid faces of my people; I wondered how I would ever be able to convince them of the truth of peace. And, could I convince myself? Even supposing I hadn't been raised to hate the serpiente, witnessing near eight feet of cobra wrestling across the floor in front of me was a thing that I thought would still have kept me spellbound with fear, and I wondered why I thought that peace with this was something I wanted.
But I couldn't be someone who hadn't been raised the way I had. Just as I couldn't be someone who hadn't seen what I had seen in my life- someone who wasn't haunted by dreams of dead children, dreams that I had bound myself to prevent.
"Stop this now!" I demanded.
No one listened to me. I glared at Rei.
He shook his head without looking at me, watching the twisting battle closely as he commented, "If anyone tries to separate them they could do more harm than good." His eyes flickered to the members of his Flight and I knew he was also worried that if he sent anyone to interfere it would be by the blade of one of our own that Zane's death would come.
I turned to Karashan. She still looked thunderstruck, but her eyes were following the fight without trouble. "You brought it here; get rid of that thing."
Her gaze turned to me for a moment before again fastening on the combat. "Darzee told me that nothing would distract Tavi once he had begun." She actually sounded regretful. "Do you hear me, cobra? You will have to kill him."
I stared at her, taken aback. She was rooting for Zane? Something had changed in her mien since our conversation on the balcony only moments before, but I wasn't quite sure what it was.
Zane hissed again, in pain this time, and the fear that was in me was for him as I saw that the hunter had caught him by the back of the neck, low, right at where the hood spread. The mongoose's teeth dug in deep, and he tried to brace his slim body against the wall to get better purchase. Zane shifted and, human, grabbed his attacker, throwing him against the far wall, hard. Tavi shifted as well and as he brandished his glaive I knew why Zane had sought to keep the battle in their other form; in his serpent form he had the edge, but now just a cut from the blade Tavi held would mean the other man's victory.
Zane was bleeding heavily from the wound on his neck, as well as multiple other smaller cuts and scratches the hunter had inflicted, but he managed to grab the glaive by the pole as Tavi thrust it at him, and they wrestled for control of it for a moment before Tavi won, sending Zane staggering backward. Zane turned the stagger into a roll away that brought him out of the range of the weapon, the primary purpose of which was to keep the hunter himself out of the reach of Zane's most potent weapon. Black scales rippled over his skin as Zane eyed the glaive's blade warily.
But... am'haj was not a problem for me. If I couldn't trust any of the others to protect Zane, I could at least do so myself. I started forward, but Rei grabbed me and pulled me back all the way to the door. "Are you crazy?" he hissed in my ear.
I struggled, but it was Karashan who moved forward this time. "Cobra," she called. "Take my sword." She placed the blade on the floor and spun it toward him.
Zane stopped it with a booted foot and picked it up by the handle. Though it had not been freshly coated I knew his caution was well placed; every blade in the Keep had been soaked in the falcon's poison at some point in its existence.
The hunter took the moment of Zane's distraction to move in closer, but overconfidence was his undoing as he overextended himself and Zane moved in under the reach of his opponent's blade. He used his sword to sever the glaive's long pole in half, and, as the bladed end clattered to the floor, loud in the suddenly silent room, Zane moved inside the hunter's guard. With an almost caring gesture he embraced the hunter close to him and, as black scales rippled over his skin and his eyes blazed brightly red, bared long, white fangs against Tavi's shoulder. I watched, breath leaving me completely, as black coils twined around the hunter's body, and those ivory fangs sank into the soft flesh of his throat. Tavi's jaw gaped wide and his eyes stared at nothing as he twitched and fell to the ground, lying still.
Zane pulled away from the body suddenly and, mostly human, stood, staggering backwards. He leaned heavily on his borrowed sword, his skin still black as he drew rapid, shallow breaths through a mouth still filled with too-long fangs. He watched those around him warily, and with good reason I thought.
I shook myself free of Rei and ran to his side. Zane turned dark, red eyes to me and then, abruptly, collapsed against me. With his body pressed against mine I could feel the rapid beating of his heart, and my hands thrown around him caught in the rough folds of his shirt, already soaked and heavy with his blood.
I heard a gasp from the Royal Flight as Zane fell against me; I heard bow strings being pulled back and the rasp of metal as blades were drawn. "No!" I shouted again, pulling Zane down and turning away to shield him with my own body. "Zane Cobriana is my alistair," I said, and wondered at the depth and strength of my voice when my breathing wasn't much slower than Zane's.
As I had hoped that information stayed the bows long enough for Rei to confirm. "Stand down," he said to them as he moved toward me. "You should get out of here," he said more softly to me. I glared at him, but he clarified, "We're going to have to clean this up. You should take Zane somewhere else, while I explain your big secret to everyone in order to keep him from being killed."
I nodded. Rei traded looks with Karashan that I couldn't read, and she came forward to offer her hand to help us to our feet.
I turned to Zane. His breathing had quieted somewhat, and he was watching Karashan warily. When she held out her hand, he returned her sword. She smirked and took it, but said, apparently out of nowhere, "I have killed, and I have seen even more die. Not everyone accepts his death, but for those who do there is a moment between acceptance and finality. In that moment that person will speak the truth, because the truth is all that is left to them." Her eyes were fixed on Zane and I noticed she met his gaze without flinching. "I saw you in that moment. When there was no room for deceit left in you, I saw that you wanted peace between us, no matter the cost." She bowed her head. "I have misjudged you. I am sorry."
I could only blink at her in shock as her words rippled through the watchers, but Zane's voice was clear as he answered. "When two warriors have wielded the same blade, there is no need for apologies," he said, silky tongued as always; I caught that he wasn't talking about borrowed swords, but I wondered who else had. He dropped his eyes without trying to hold her gaze, and Karashan nodded.
"Only promises for tomorrow."
I breathed. I couldn't believe it. Karashan... my most ardent warrior, accepting peace? But there were more pressing issues. "Erica," I called to the sparrow lingering in the doorway, "Get Betsy, please. We will be in my room." I stood, offering my hand to Zane. He reached out to take it, only then apparently realizing that he was still covered in the scales of his demi form. Oddly enough, I realized that I had forgotten it as well. Our eyes met over our outstretched hands and, as I did not flinch from him, he placed his hand in mine. I felt his skin return to flesh and it made a shiver of oddness ripple down my spine; it was an unusual sensation, but not so entirely unpleasant as might have been expected.
Between us, Karashan and I pulled him to his feet and, rather quickly at that point, took him from the room.
Betsy was waiting for us in my room and we lay Zane face-down over the couch so that she could see to the wound. It was deeper than I would have thought it would be, two heavy fang marks edged with the marks of smaller teeth, and was still bleeding freely. I touched Zane's hair softly, barely noticing that my other hand was still caught in his. "There's no poison?" I asked, worried. It was more blood than I had ever seen from a wound that wasn't mortal.
Betsy shook her head vaguely, focused on her work, but it was Zane who answered me, his voice low and husky. "No. The children of Ichneumon are not known for having poison of their own." His eyes closed and he sighed softly, a pleasant sound that I would not usually have associated with the work Betsy was doing. I realized with an unpleasant jolt that, through his serpiente ability, he was feeling my concern for him and my affection; I was completely relaxed- I had lowered my usual facade, and I had done it as unconsciously as I had reached for his hand earlier. I touched his hair again, this time with wonder directed at myself. What had happened that I trusted so quickly that this one I had been raised to believe my enemy wished me no harm? Was it something that had happened as he slept against me in the night, forgetting in that restfulness that we were ancient foes and acknowledging unconsciously that we were not so different? Or was it, as Karashan had said, that in his acceptance- not of our apparent betrayal, but of his own death- I had seen something which I could not doubt the honesty of?
He opened his eyes, as if aware of my thoughts, and I looked into them. They were so strange looking, so unlike the golden and brown I was used to seeing in the faces around me. There was the possibility of danger in them, of being caught, but a part of me seemed insistent on pointing out that there was no more danger there than there was in the strength of Rei's arm; I was convinced that neither would hurt me.
As if to think of him summoned him, Rei appeared in the doorway. "Tuuli Thea," he said softly as he entered and glanced worriedly at Zane. "Word of the fight has spread quickly, as well as the news of your declaration of alistair. The serpiente guards who came with us are... upset." He paused and I knew that the word he had used was a gross understatement. "They want to see Zane." I looked at him sharply and he shrugged. "The rumors are flying fast and many of them place him dead." He glanced at the cobra but still spoke to me. "I... had to restrain them, to keep them from hurting more of my guard."
Zane's fingers tightened around mine and I didn't have to look to know that his eyes were dark with anger. "Show them up here," I commanded. Rei hesitated. I sighed. "Bring your whole flight too if you need to but bring them up here. They should know that he's not dead."
"He needs to rest," Betsy said, speaking finally. I could see that she had stopped the bleeding, but Zane was still very pale. "And he should eat as well; something with lots of iron."
I wouldn't mind rest as well; it was full night by now. But, I knew, it was going to be awhile before I was able to seek my own bed. "He'll rest better with his own guards here," I said firmly. "And if he is well for the moment please go yourself and have something prepared for him to eat." She looked at me oddly but nodded, rose, and left. I hardly noticed; I was hoping that peace would still be a salvageable thing after this attack. Zane would perhaps believe that I, at the least, had not intended him harm, but would the other serpiente believe it as well? And could they trust it to be true of all my people when even I could not? Assuring Zane's guards that he wasn't dead would be a place to start.
But even as I thought these things, I realized I couldn't leave him until they arrived. Zane's was the only authority they would recognize; mine being a far second as Naga, and that of any other avian being worse than non-existent. I would have to explain the entire situation to them before I could safely leave them alone with other avians. But I needed to know what was going on in the rest of the Keep as well. "Rei, what else requires attention?"
"He's already gone," Karashan murmured, and I looked up to see she was right. "If there are rumors flying wildly, I will go myself to assure your mother of the truth and do my best to combat other hearsay with the same." She looked at my face for a long moment before saying, "With your leave, my Tuuli Thea."
Surprised at her volunteering, I nodded, and she also left. I was alone with Zane for the moment, but he appeared to have drifted into a doze. He did not rouse as I removed my hand from his now lax grip and lightly touched the back of his neck, my fingers ghosting over the bandage there. If there was anything I knew was true, it was that life was a fragile and transitory thing. I had lost so many people; I had held some of them as that life passed from them, as breath and heart stopped. I had promised to Karashan that I would put an end to the killing, but I could not do it without this man's help. I thought he must have known it, must have read some truth of his own in me, or how could he have rested so easily under my hands?
All too soon Rei returned, with almost the entirety of the Royal Flight and Adelina and Ailbhe behind him. I winced internally; I'd forgotten that Adelina was one of the guards who'd come with them.
The serpiente were still bound for their trip up through the Keep, and Adelina's eyes were spitting fire. Otherwise her face was a mask of icy calm that dissolved when her searching gaze found Zane; she saw only one thing in the stillness of his face. "Zane!" she cried, and in that one word I understood instantly why she hated me so very much. It wasn't just about my being an avian, and, as I stood from my position at Zane's side, I motioned for Rei to let her go to him.
Rei cut her free, and Ailbhe as well, and both moved instantly to their Diente's side. His eyes had opened at Adelina's voice and he tried to smile reassuringly as she knelt beside him, her brother standing behind her and watching the roomful of avians warily.
"What is the meaning of this outrage?" Adelina asked, her voice cold with fury, as her eyes fixed on me.
"Adelina," Zane said warningly, adding, as he turned to catch my eye, "Not that I wouldn't mind knowing what exactly just happened, and whether I should expect it to happen again." He pushed himself slowly to an upright position and leaned back against the couch. Betsy had cut his blood-soaked shirt off to get it out of her way, but sitting there half naked, bandaged and bloody, he still managed to look regal. And dangerous.
The members of the Royal Flight filling the room shifted restlessly as he moved, their eyes upon him. Ailbhe was watching them in turn, every muscle tensed, and Adelina even spared a moment from death glaring me to cast her murderous eyes around the room.
I sighed. I couldn't do anything with this much tension in the room. "Zane Cobriana is my alistair," I said, meeting the gaze of each of my protectors in turn. "If you can't handle it, leave this room." None of them moved, so I threw up my hands in a rare show of temper and shouted, "Rei, get rid of them!"
No one spoke, but when I looked up again my guard had been reduced to five, including Rei and Erica. That left one for each serpiente and two left to guard me. I knew that was the best I was going to get, so I moved across from where Zane was sitting, far enough away that my remaining guards wouldn't be further alarmed, and took my own seat.
"Several days before my coronation," I began, addressing the entire room, "after our abrupt return from the Mistari, Karashan said at council that she had a plan for a major offensive. I... managed to get her to delay- indefinitely, provided I could come up with an alternative plan." I looked across to Zane, meeting his eyes. "It was the day before the coronation when I realized that your visit had not been the dream I thought it was and I came then to speak with you." His eyes were heavy on me and I looked away. "Having secured my alternative, I told Rei to inform Karashan that we would not be needing her plans. Which," I spread one hand in a gesture imploring understanding of her mindset, "she apparently took to mean that she should summon a fabled hunter from some distant place where her cousin lives. I met him earlier today in the courtyard. I had retreated to a higher balcony to discuss the matter with Karashan and, when I looked back, he was gone." I looked again at Zane. "I came immediately to find you. I... I didn't want this." I wasn't sure he would believe me; I wasn't sure I really believed me. I did know that I didn't want anyone else to die, even him, but I had almost been willing to let myself be talked into turning a blind eye to it as long as it saved my people, and I was afraid that if anyone truly set to trying to talk me into such a deal again that I would let them. There was no reason he should trust me; and I had to fight myself mightily to keep a sudden ironic smile from my face after my own earlier thoughts on Zane's own trustworthiness. The result of that fight was me pulling back behind the shield of my avian reserve, and I saw Zane frown slightly. But...
"I believe you," he said, though Adelina hissed softly at his side. He closed his eyes, tired. "Adelina, go back and tell my mother and Irene what has happened. I would not leave them waiting upon word, and I'm sure the wildest rumors have spread that far already."
"But-" she began to protest; he held up a hand and, despite his tired and pale features, she didn't argue and bowed her head, nodding slowly.
"Rei, give her anything she needs to speed her journey." He started at my words but nodded. I looked at Adelina. "I would offer to have one of my people fly you there if I thought you would accept."
Her lip curled in revulsion and I could see her vehement refusal on her lips, but Zane's voice was the one I heard. "Do it."
She whirled on him. "No," she said in a voice that implied she thought he was more than slightly crazy.
He locked eyes with her. "It's the fastest way. For Charis, you will do it."
Her whole body vibrated with the need to refuse, but, miraculously, the words never breached her lips. Again, she merely nodded, a tight hard gesture. She stood and fixed me with eyes that still burned with hatred and I marveled at how much she was willing to sacrifice. I wasn't sure if she was doing it because Zane had asked or if it was for his mother, but either way I marveled.
"Rei," I said without looking at him.
His voice was thoughtful when he responded. "Before I go, we should conduct the ceremony."
I did look at him then. "It's the middle of the night." I glanced at Zane, barely able to sit up straight. "It can wait till morning, at least." We'd meant to have the alistair ceremony tomorrow anyway.
Rei shook his head. "Dani," he said, and I knew he was serious. "Until he takes the vows only your word protects him. I... If you're set on doing this, I'd rather not leave it to any chance."
I looked at Zane. His eyes were bright on me and far more awake than he had seemed moments before, but he did not speak. I sighed. "Alright, but if we are dispensing with other protocols then we will do only what is needed to protect him, and we will do it here. We can have the full ceremony in a couple of days."
Rei nodded. "Then all you require is me, and as many of your people as can be gathered, though there is no required amount." The words were oddly pessimistic, as if there was a chance that the Tuuli Thea would not be able to muster the minimum number of people required so a limit had not been set. "And," he reminded me softly, "you should probably call for your mother."
My mother... By the sky, I hadn't had a chance to speak to her since this had all begun.
"I am here." The voice of Nacola Shardae echoed through the room. She was standing in the doorway, flanked by Gerard and Karashan. Her expression was flat and completely closed as she scanned the room. I had not expected her to be pleased, but the coldness in her eyes as she at last met mine cut me deeply.
I turned away from her. "Rei, begin," I commanded.
I stood, and, with Ailbhe's help, Zane rose and came to stand near me.
"Tuuli Thea Danica Shardae," Rei's words echoed through the room and through me. "You have chosen this man as your alistair, as your protector, of your own free will and without coercion."
"I have," I answered, and if my voice was not so penetrating at least it was unwavering.
Rei turned intent eyes upon my potential alistair. "Are you willing to swear upon your own spirit and the sky above that you will protect Danica Shardae from all harm?"
"Upon my own spirit, I will so swear." Zane appeared completely unperturbed, and I wondered how much of that was just him being moments from passing out.
"And do you swear you will never raise voice or hand against her?"
Zane blinked, as if surprised by the wording, and there was a significant pause before he responded. "I swear," he began, then wavered slightly and leaned on Ailbhe, who raised a hand to grip his Diente's arm. In the silence of the room I thought I heard my mother make a soft sound of deprecation. Zane's hand curled into a fist and he started again, "I swear I will honor her and respect her, and she will never have reason to fear me."
I blinked. It was an odd response, but I could tell that my mother's apparent belief that he would be unable to fulfill that particular vow had stung him.
Rei didn't miss a beat. "Danica Shardae is Tuuli Thea, and so what you swear to her, you swear to all her people. Will you protect the Tuuli Thea's people as you would your own family, and risk all that is necessary to defend them?"
Zane was gripping Ailbhe's hand tightly by this point, but his words were clearly spoken, and his eyes were intent. "I swear by Anhamirak, that I will do everything within my power to stop the bloodshed among the Tuuli Thea's people. By the tears of the goddess, I swear it."
Ailbhe and Adelina both were staring at him. As if we had verged into a completely different ceremony, Adelina murmured in response to his words, "By the goddess, let it be so."
Rei ignored her. "Danica Shardae, Tuuli Thea, you have chosen this man as your alistair. Zane Cobriana, you have sworn to defend Danica Shardae, you Tuuli Thea. Upon the words you have spoken, you are bound for life."
There, it was done. We were bound by avian law, promises made and given.
I was staring at Zane and I didn't notice until it was too late that Rei and Adelina were gone. Betsy had apparently arrived during the ceremony and was pressing Zane back down on the couch and feeding him something from a bowl in her hands.
Ailbhe was shifting uncomfortably; I imagined he felt rather outnumbered and too tired to deal with it. I sympathized and, with a breath to collect myself to face my mother's protests, waved the collected watching avians out of the room. "Go, sleep now," I commanded, trying to make my smile reassuring but only achieving tired. I followed them to the door, expecting that my mother would want to speak privately, but she only swept icily down the hall with everyone else.
Erica remained by the door with me as I wearily watched my mother's departing back, but she slipped back into the room as I lingered. As much as I had anticipated Nacola's disapproval, the cut hurt. Thankfully, I was almost too tired to feel it.
I turned back to my room to find Betsy finished and gone and Zane, apparently asleep already, lying across my bed. Erica and Ailbhe stood to either side of the door; as I moved away from it and into the room they slipped outside, Erica pulling it shut behind her.
I must have walked to the bed but all I remembered was suddenly standing over it, looking down at Zane's unconscious face. It was only hours till dawn and, having dealt with what needed to be dealt with immediately, I was almost beyond thinking. Too tired to even walk around the bed, I crawled over his still body and lay down on the other side of the bed. He wasn't quite as unconscious as I'd thought because he turned toward me, curling against my back. I sighed, rolling my eyes, and fell asleep between that breath and the next.
Ichneumon is the Egyptian word for mongoose. Tavi is supposed to be from India (where the original Kipling tale is set), but if the Kiesha'ra can have their origin story be set in Egypt and use Indic words like Naga, then the Egyptian word for the made up origin of my Indic character makes total sense.
According to a Wikipedia link I have learned that mongooses are apparently resistant, if not completely immune, to snake venom. That is contradictory to the Kipling, who implies in his story that mongooses are as susceptible to snake venom as anyone. It might be fictional, and scientifically 100 years out of date anyway, but since I'm basing this story off of Kipling I'm going with his version.
Chapter 2: (Interlude: Adelina)
"You will have to transform, so that I can carry you."
She eyes the bird suspiciously.
Her Diente can make gestures to the birds. He can even swear by the goddess if he wants.
His mother made a gesture not so different to Adelina's own people. Just as feared and hated, but at least they have the same form, the same nature; at least they are not so different as to be something incomprehensible.
Can she do it as well? Can she make gestures, and can she hold to them and believe in them even when she holds to and believes in nothing else?
She shifts, and as white scales ripple all along her body, the bird shudders. He flinches from her; his dark wings are spread as if for flight. But he holds out his hand to her. She eyes it slowly, slit pupils examining him. He is fearful but determined. She feels in him something of what drives her- the desperate faithfulness to someone who has seen you as more than what you were, more than what you had been limited to- and she is not pleased to feel they have that connection.
She winds her length around his arm, up and around his body. Her head circles his throat, rests at last on his shoulder, and he is tense with his need to repress his distaste. She is amused, but then he steps to the edge and he leaps off into the palest of starlit nights, and she feels her heart seize in her. Fear overwhelms her and, though she is not one of those who constricts her prey, she squeezes around him tightly. He falters for a moment and she eases her grip on him, even a mind numbed by terror recognizing the source of continued elevation, continued existence. The ground is so far below her as to be completely unseen, unfelt, unexperienced and therefore unable to be proven to be real. Perhaps if they fell, they would fall forever, her and the bird...
She thinks she might have blacked out for a moment; when she comes to herself, she finds the bird holding her so that she doesn't fall. He lights on the ground as easily as he left it and she slips gratefully to the dirt, feeling it solid, warm, and welcoming against her ridged scales. They are near the palace of her own people; she wonders that it was such a short distance by air. She wonders that they have never successfully used that against her people before. But soon there are other things to concern her.
She hears her people moving in the brush. The bird hears them too; he is still, his eyes on her and his ears open to the night. She shifts and raises her arms to signal her people. She senses weapons being lowered and a form materializes before her.
"Adelina," he addresses her, his dark scales blending his skin into the night so that his bright blue eyes almost float on nothing. "We have heard news from the Hawk's Keep." He fixes those eyes on the bird, burning eyes that want answers and, failing answers, will settle for blood. "News that says our supposed Naga is a lying traitor to our people."
She supposes that this is the moment she should feel that she has a choice to make, but it is a choice already made. "Lies," she says, "all lies. The Diente was ambushed by a visitor to the Keep. It was not the hawk's intention to shed blood. Zane lives. Peace is still his desire, and his Naga's desire."
She does find that those words sit strangely yet in her mouth: his Naga. They were almost different words: me, mine. But the bitterness that followed that thought has been replaced with other things in an odd sort of detachment. Now what she feels is relief- that Zane is alive, and that, for the most part, it does not seem that the hawks want him dead.
The guards move around her, more of them coming out of the darkness to examine the bird. She shakes herself, remembers her goal. "Take me to Charis."
The bird comes with her. She supposes he doesn't want to be left alone, and she cannot say that she doesn't understand it, even as she thinks of her brother and her king, alone, surrounded by birds in that place. But...
It is hard to overcome ways she has thought all her life. She knows it is hard because she is here, in the house of the Cobriana, where those of her family have not tread for generations, and even to this day she sees those who only want to remind her that it should have stayed that way: that Maeve's children have no place with true serpiente. It is hard... but it is not the hardest thing.
Charis is standing in the synkal, surrounded by her people. Irene is with her, the crowd reaching for their last princess, wanting to touch her, reassure her, protect her. She is whiter than her brother was when Adelina left him, pale and determined and giving every piece of himself to secure peace.
Adelina calls out to the crowd, raising her hand to bring attention to herself. She thinks that it might be the bird that gets her the attention. Fangs are bared to him, but she takes his wrist and pulls him with her, through the crowd. Realizing she brings news, a path opens for her to the dais and she pulls herself and the bird up to Charis' questioning, desperate eyes, and she says, "He lives."
Galen catches Irene as she faints, overwhelmed at the news, too full of joy- and the knowledge that she is not, yet, the last hope of her people- to bear another moment. He carries her from the crowd of people, and they turn to Adelina, silent now, in the restless watching silence that precedes the wild storm, silent until they know which way the storm should turn.
"The Diente was ambushed by a strange visitor to the Hawk's Keep, one of the Ichneumon," she says, hearing hisses of derision and fear throughout the crowd. Charis herself almost faints, and Adelina pauses a moment. She gives them the moment she never had time for, to stop and wonder how the birds ever found the legendary hunters who are more myth and fable than flesh and blood, and then to wonder why it hadn't happened sooner, mutual foes drawn together by their hatred. She gives them that moment, but only a moment. "Zane slew the hunter." She pauses again, for their cheers, and she knows Zane has become more than a legend to his people now, for the Ichneumon are the greatest monsters that live in stories used to frighten children. Their dark and innumerable powers are limited only by the teller of the story and they are often undefeatable. "He was wounded, but it was not the hawk's intention to shed blood. Peace is still Zane's desire, and his Naga's desire."
When she says it this time it comes easier to her tongue. She remembers the fierceness in the hawk's eyes as she tried to cast her guards from the room to protect Zane from their predatory stares, and she remembers the hawk's soft words of desperation as she confessed the path of events to them, the victims, and hoped against hope that they would still accept her offer of peace. The hawk does want peace, Adelina believes this. She is starting to believe that the hawk wants this peace and Zane's continued life as well.
Charis is eying the crow. She is not alone, and the crow is nervous. Adelina knows this because he is blank to her, but he is standing officially "at ease" so sharply she thinks his bones might pop out of his skin from the tension of his stance.
"Andreios," she says, her voice carrying to the whole synkal, "brought me here by wing so that I might quickly bring you trustworthy report." He blinks at the recognition, or perhaps that she remembers his name, and ducks his head in response.
She turns to Charis. "I would return to Zane now."
Charis nods. "Take more guards with you," she says firmly. "And a doctor. They cannot begrudge Zane that." She glares at the bird, and in the queen mother there is more mother than queen at that moment.
Adelina doesn't know what that means to the peace, to bring more serpiente into the hawks' nest without the hawks' manifest, but Andreios only nods in acceptance. She grins wickedly, wondering if he knows that means he will have to carry more of them on the trip back.
She doesn't think that he had realized it, but he stands patiently as more than 18 feet of serpent curls around him. She directs them, remembering freshly her own first experience with flight, and makes sure they will not impede him if they become frightened. She has carefully chosen another guard and a young physician; they should be experienced enough that they won't startle but fresh-minded enough that they will not cause incident at the Hawk's Keep by clinging to what was and no longer is. She can see that they are already impressed by Andreios; his stoicism is not enough to hide his fear, but he stands firm and does not flinch from the sinuous touch of their scales as the three snakes wind their way around his body. She wishes for a moment that she was as stoic; the tickle of feathers on her nose as she circles his neck still makes her hiss in revulsion. But then, as he leaves the ground in a powerful thrust of strong wings, she thinks she is doing well to be here at all, and to not have killed him yet.
They arrive safely, though shaken, three snakes not used to the wind and a bird not used to scaled passengers. They set down on the highest floor of the Hawk's Keep, and she can see her brother down the hall, her brother and the sparrow standing guard. Ailbhe nods to her and looks relieved to see she has brought reinforcements; the sparrow looks displeased but resigned.
They stand guard outside the door, and Adelina knows what that means but she cannot stop herself from going to that door and pushing it open. Andreios is beside her; she doesn't know if he follows her to check on his queen or if he follows her to prevent her from taking whatever action he supposes she'll take. She suspects the former but thinks that he will plead the latter even with his dedication to this peace. He moves as soundlessly as she, and she is impressed, though not in the least bit surprised.
Her Zane is sleeping on the bed. He is still far too pale, but his face is relaxed in sleep and he does not look as though he is in pain.
The hardest thing, she thinks, is not letting go of the ways of thought she has cherished all her life.
It is letting go of the things that came after that.
For generations- as long as there had been a war with the birds, and longer even- Maeve's children knew the place that should have been theirs. Never would Adelina have thought that she would love one of the Cobriana. Her family was well versed in stories of the cobra's arrogance, their lust for power, and their disregard for common decency. When she bridged that rift, Adelina thought she'd done the greatest thing she'd ever be called upon to accomplish in her life.
The hawk is lying beside him on the bed. Danica. She is curled next to Zane, her face half hidden against his hair. Her hand lies against his arm lightly. The determined set of her mouth is only slightly less resolute in sleep; she twitches slightly, battling some dream, and her hand turns, grasping Zane's arm and holding it firmly, pulling him closer.
Adelina looks across the bed. Andreios is standing there, and he looks up to meet her eyes. They do not wear masks for each other in that moment. The emotion is too raw, too full, too much. Heartbreak and love, and...
And Adelina sighs, a soft exhalation of breath that represents so much more. She loves Zane, and because she loves him, she must honor what he loves: his people and their safety, the peace he has given himself for and upon which he has asked the blessing of the goddess. She did not want to give him to the cold embrace of a hawk, but... She looks at the determined set of Danica's face and thinks: as long as you care for him, as long as you know what he has given up for you, as long as you give him what he needs, then... then I will trust him to your keeping.
Heartbreak and love, and acceptance. She turns from the bed. Dawn is rising through the window, and she hasn't slept since the night before this last one. Andreios beckons her back to the hallway and she leaves the new guard she brought on duty as Ailbhe gladly follows her to the room the crow shows them. The crow is practically dead on his feet as well, and as he shows her people to beds, as he tells one of his own guards the situation, he and his sparrow fall onto beds as well and sleep. She thinks that part of it is that he can guard her and her people, and his queen, better if he stays close, but she thinks also that something has passed between the two of them that night and, as much as she still does not like that she shares it with him, she finds it is not a bad thing to not be alone.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
I woke early in the morning, despite my late start to bed. My dreams had been restless and varied but I felt well rested. As was not unusual, I woke to find that I had shifted during the night's sleep. As was not usual, I had shared my bed with another body. The soft, rhythmic brush of air over my shoulder I identified as someone breathing on my collarbone.
I opened my eyes, looked up to see the familiar ceiling of the Keep, and lay still as the previous day bubbled up through my unconscious. I remembered Zane; I had dreamed about the Naga ceremony. I was not surprised to feel him lying against me, though it still felt far too familiar a gesture. I made myself lie still and think over the events of last night.
Zane Cobriana was my alistair. The thought had an odd sense of weight to it, more so than it ever had before. Before it had been a thought, an idea, a serpiente ceremony that claimed we were bound together, but to hear the words of the alistair ceremony spoken over us made it real to me in a way that it hadn't been previously. The enormity of the realization almost pushed the memory of Karashan's unfortunate guest from my mind.
I pushed myself up to a sitting position, turning to look down at Zane. He appeared to be asleep still, his features lax in repose. He'd gained a bit of color and was nearer his usual level of paleness than the bloodless white he'd been the previous night. He was curled toward me, his hand lying against my arm before I had moved, and I took a moment to marvel at him. He slept so easily against me; perhaps some of it was the demands of his exhausted body, but I could not imagine myself in a similar position resting so easily. And yet... I paused then to marvel at myself. I had slept well sleeping beside him, twice now.
I could hear someone humming softly.
I watched Zane for a few moments, but the humming was persistently in my mind and I slipped from the bed to discover its source.
A heavy curtain separated the bed from the rest of the room, and I pushed it back to find Eleanor sitting on the couch. She was the source of the humming, a mindless noise to accompany the busy work she was focusing on, but it halted as she looked up at me with a smile.
"My lady," she said, rising to give a small bow. "I hope I wasn't disturbing you. There was an altercation between some of the guards. They couldn't agree on who should be allowed to guard you, and, well, I was the only compromise." She waited politely to see what my response would be.
I assumed that when she said "altercation" she meant between the Royal Flight and Zane's guards, rather than within the Royal Flight, though I wondered if I could assume anything, and it suddenly occurred to me to worry about the mission I had sent Rei off on. I frowned. "Did Rei and Adelina return?"
"Yes, Tuuli Thea. They are both still sleeping." She hesitated, but added, "They brought two additional serpiente with them. I believe one is a doctor; if Zane is awake, he'll probably want to have a look at him."
I shook my head. "He's asleep still." I frowned again and rubbed my face. "Call the doctor anyway." She nodded, moving toward the door as I added imploringly, "It's not too late for breakfast, is it?"
Eleanor smiled. "No, I'll have some brought up if you would like to wait here."
I paused but nodded. I needed to get out and see my people, but... it could wait until after I'd fortified myself. And- I regarded my wardrobe with a critical eye, and nose- washed and changed.
Eleanor didn't go far. She slipped just outside the door to speak with someone waiting there. I ducked the other way into one of my separate rooms and went about the process of my morning ablutions. Breakfast was waiting for me when I returned, which brightened my mood considerably. Sitting down across from Eleanor, however, the emptiness of the room gave me a sudden spike of worry.
"Eleanor, where are my guards? I can't believe that there aren't five of them in here, trying to keep me 'safe.'"
She smiled easily, if somewhat coldly. "Don't worry, the five you're expecting are all waiting just outside the door. The pair who are officially on guard- Theodore of the serpiente guard and Alice from the Royal Flight- made a deal that no one but me was allowed to come in here until someone of sufficient rank was awake again and able to give orders they would both agree to."
I blinked. "They made a deal, and they're trusting each other to honor it?" It seemed like such a huge step toward peaceful relations that I felt odd that I had slept through it.
Eleanor shrugged and her answer was slightly pessimistic. "Alice is because she thinks she got the better end of the deal, and Theodore is because he doesn't have much of an option."
I looked at her closely. "That's still a huge step."
She looked up from her hands, where her gaze had fallen, and smiled at me. "I guess it is."
There was a hesitant knock at the door and when Eleanor rose to answer it, I waved her back to her seat and went myself.
I opened the door to a veritable wall of people standing in the hallway. As Eleanor had promised, there were at least five members of the Royal Flight standing around trying to look surreptitious; more stood behind them so that I couldn't make out their faces. I remembered Alice from the coronation and assumed the serpiente standing opposite her in front of the door was Theodore. Another serpiente was standing near him and from the tense posture of the far too many people crammed into the hall I could tell that before I had opened the door the other avians had been harassing them. I sighed internally; at least no one was dead yet. And, by the way her hand was still raised, I could tell that Alice had been the one to knock on the door, which gave me a bit of hope- that she was seeking my authority rather than letting her compatriots deal with the serpiente as they saw fit.
I smiled at them all. "Good morning." I realized who the other serpiente must be and continued, before anyone else could get a word in, "You must be the doctor, please come in." I moved back to allow him to enter, an objection from several of the avians present strangling itself off before I could see who had raised it. I eyed them each in turn with an icy glare, casting my eyes over the serpiente last. They were also my people now, and, while I didn't want to encourage the paranoid behavior of my personal guards, I didn't want to play favorites either.
"With your permission, Tuuli Thea," Alice said into the silence, "Theodore and I will come in as well."
I met her eyes for a long moment. "Alright," I agreed finally, and the three of them slipped inside.
I caught Karl trying to sneak in after them and took him by the arm. "Karl, perfect. Please stand out here and watch the door while Alice and Theodore help me inside." Stationing him firmly in front of the door, between me and the rest of the hallway full of my people, I ducked quickly back inside.
"By the sun and sky," I muttered to myself as I moved back to my breakfast. Eleanor giggled quietly but the others pretended not to hear me. I sat down again and eyed the newcomers. Alice and Theodore were staying by the door, but Theodore was casting not too subtle eyes around the room which came to rest on the bed where Zane was still sleeping. The other serpiente was edging in that direction as well, though he hadn't declared or introduced himself.
"You are the doctor, correct?" I addressed him.
He started, turning back to me. "Yes, Naga. I am sorry if I was rude. I am... somewhat out of sorts this morning." He gave me a slight bow. "My name is Chua." He hesitated. "The Diente... is unwell?"
I shook my head. "He's fine, I think. He's still sleeping, deeply. I did ask for you to come because I was a little worried. Is it alright for him to still be asleep? Should we wake him and make sure he eats something?"
Chua pursed his lips thoughtfully. "It is quite probable that he will sleep for a long time yet. I will take a quick look and see what I can determine without disturbing him." He slipped away to the bed and I relaxed a bit more. I was still quite a bit concerned about Zane, but if Chua wasn't worried then I would try not to be either. Eleanor and I finished breakfast in silence while we waited for Chua's report.
It was good. "He appears to be doing better than I had hoped, given the reports I had heard previously. I have changed the bandage and cleaned the wound, but your own doctor did good work. We should give him some more time to sleep but if he does not wake by noon then you should wake him then and ensure that he eats."
I nodded. That wouldn't be a problem, and it gave me several hours to fill with figuring out what was going on everywhere else before I had to deal with Zane. Though... I couldn't leave him here alone. I eyed the roomful of people. "I will be going out this morning to see to the status of the Keep. For the moment, please keep to the same guard positions; Eleanor, Chua can replace you if you're tired, but I think someone should stay in here with Zane." I hesitated; I wasn't sure if it was Rei rubbing off on me or what, but it felt like the correct decision to insist that Zane not be left alone.
"I'll stay for a bit and chat with Chua, if you don't mind?" Eleanor addressed the last to the serpiente, who looked surprised but nodded cautiously.
I nodded and stood. With breakfast finished there wasn't any reason to put off further my need to go out and mingle with my people. I tried to keep a positive mien, but, when I opened the door to again find a hallway full of tense guards, I almost shut it and went out the window instead. But I took a deep breath and stepped into their midst.
They stepped back from me, giving me room, and most had the grace to look abashed. I picked out four of those ones randomly and appointed them my guards for my descent to the court. I almost banished the rest from the hallway, but instead I only, loudly, reminded Alice to not let anyone else go into my rooms. She had returned to her post outside the door while Theodore had either opted to remain on the other side of the door or had decided to take a few moments to reassure himself personally that Zane was, truly, alive.
The lower courts were oddly subdued. I saw avians going about their work without a great deal of stopping to gossip or glancing around to check for invading serpiente... but that mostly changed when they saw me. They clustered around me, and after repeating myself several times I pushed my way to the main court stage. "Everyone," I called, "please listen!" They quieted, slowly. "As you can see, I am well. Yes, Zane Cobriana is my alistair. He has taken the vows, and we will have a public ceremony in a couple of days."
The whispering grew as it seemed I was done talking, and I paused to see if there would be any questions. "But my lady," an older raven spoke up. "I heard Karashan brought a hunter to kill all the snakes." His voice suggested that I was slightly off my game to have missed this opportunity, which would surely win the war, and as a murmur of agreement rustled through the crowd at his statement a cold weariness settled over me.
I took the cold into me and held it close. "There will be no more killing while I am Tuuli Thea," I said, holding on to my resolve if I could not hold on to hope. "Not of anyone. I am Naga of the serpiente. They are my people, even as you are my people, and if anyone does an injury to them, they do it to one of my own people."
The rustling murmur of the crowd grew. "But Tuuli Thea," another voice spoke, "can you trust that they will feel the same? How can you be sure that they are not even now plotting to attack our soldiers as our guard is lowered by talk of peace?"
The weariness overwhelmed me, and I closed my eyes. "I doubted them, and their commitment to peace, as well," I admitted. "But I do not any longer." I tried to catch the eyes of my audience, tried to make sure they could see the earnestness in mine, the dedication. "Karashan's hunter did attack Zane last night, and Zane killed him. And still, Zane Cobriana took my hand in peace and believed me, trusted me; when my people had just tried to have him assassinated, he trusted that I wanted peace."
The buzz of the crowd was louder, and I had to raise my voice to make sure I was heard. "I know some of you doubt still, and I am sure there are some among the serpiente who, hearing the stories of last night's attack, doubt that we are committed to peace. But, in your doubt, remember that I stood before them and not one of them caused me harm. They accepted me as their leader. I can only ask that you do the same for Zane."
I was shaking, and I looked over the heads of those gathered and spotted Gerard standing near the back; I remembered that he had been guarding my mother last night and I realized that if he was awake then she probably was as well. I shouldn't spend all my energy here when I still should face her, but it was important that I make my people understand, or, at the least, make them stop and think before passing judgment.
I sighed and closed my eyes again for a moment. "So many have been taken from us by the war. There is not one of us who had not lost someone. The serpiente are the same. In many ways they are different from us, but in this they are the same. I trust Zane and his own desire for peace. Please, all I ask is that you trust as I do. Perhaps it is a lot to ask, but it is only one thing that I ask."
The crowd's murmur had died away and I stopped speaking in the utter silence of the court. Suddenly it was too much and I turned and fled from their eyes. I tried to pull my reserve around me; after having spent the past two days carefully taking it down it felt strange to build it up again, but it was sure armor and once I had it in place it settled comfortably. I made my way to my mother's rooms and did not allow my surprise when she allowed me in to show.
She held herself stiffly and I got the impression that she had not slept well. Long moments passed after she had admitted me before either of us spoke and my weary mind spent those moments longingly hiding in memories of childhood, before there had been distance and the memories of the dead between us.
"Danica Shardae," my mother began suddenly, her voice sharp and brittle. "You are Tuuli Thea now, and I have no power to override your decisions." She turned away from me, almost helplessly, but the words kept coming, as if she had practiced them until they were rote, "But I will not support your agreeing to this sickening arrangement."
"I'm sorry to hear that." My response felt almost as rote. I closed my eyes and when I spoke again the words came from my heart rather than my mask, as my mother deserved to hear. "My people must come before even you, Mother. As your people must come before your daughter." I opened my eyes to look at her.
"Do not think that I do not understand the sacrifice that is necessary," she responded, her voice cold and hard as a blade as she stood suddenly, shaking. "Do not dare sit there and suggest that I do not understand that. I have given my parents, my sister, your own father, and two of my children to the pyre. Should I give the last of what is left to me to this snake to ruin?"
I was shaking, too. "Do you think I go in search of ruin?" I demanded. "I do this because I know that peace is worth whatever personal concession I must make. Zane understands that as well."
My mother sneered at the idea of whatever Zane might understand, but the expression fell from her face and she sank back into her chair. "Please, Danica, I know you are already committed to this, but do not be rash. Keep a guard with you always."
I suppressed the desire to sigh in exasperation. "Mother, you were there. Zane has sworn that no harm shall befall me. He is as committed to peace as I am." I thought about it and added, "Honestly, Zane is almost the least of my worries." Truly I was much more concerned about convincing my people of peace, but the "almost" slipped in there because I was suddenly extremely aware of the fact that there was a cobra sleeping in my bed, and that I was glad that I hadn't had to meet his eyes yet this morning.
Nacola rose from her chair again and paced from there to the window and back, her movements suffused with a nervous and angry energy. "Danica, you don't understand. Maybe you were too young for the responsibility, but it's too late for that now." She caught the hint of my exasperation and her voice grew harder. "He is not like the men you have known."
"Do you think I haven't noticed that?" I snapped back.
"He will not be patient," she continued relentlessly, as if desperate to make me understand before she couldn't say the words. "He will not he gentle. Danica... he will force you to do things that you aren't ready for. Things that you do not want."
I stared at her. Charis' voice was in my mind, Zane will not push you further than you are comfortable going. I wondered whose mother I was going to believe. But... I remembered also Zane himself, kneeling on the floor, my hand held out to him, and his hesitation before he grasped it, his hesitation to expose me to that part of himself without being sure that I was ready to experience it.
I met Nacola's eyes. "Zane will not do that." She started to protest, but I held up my hand and she fell silent. "I will believe that there are those among the serpiente that would act as you say, but Zane is not one of them. He..." I faltered, because he had been forward, stealing kisses in my room and at the Disa's. But... "He will not force me to anything I do not want," I said firmly. "If you cannot believe he will do it because he respects me, then I know you have spoken with Karashan. Believe he will do it because he is devoted to peace and to harm me would harm that goal."
She shook her head, and I felt weary again, incapable of making progress. "He will not remember that when he is in a temper," she advised me. "But you my daughter, remember. Remember, the fangs and forked tongue he hides behind lips that smile too easily." She held out a hand to touch my shoulder but hesitated before she did so, as if she wasn't sure what she was doing, and her eyes went distant with memory. "Remember, how history repeats."
I shivered, at my all to vibrant memory of Zane killing the hunter, long fangs sinking into soft flesh, and at her allusion to Alasdair's own misplaced trust. I nodded grudgingly to let her know her warning had not gone unheard, but I couldn't speak. She seemed to take that as all she was going to get and turned away, her arms folded tightly over her chest, clutching around her as if to ward off a chill.
I left from the balcony, flying to my own. My guards were probably still waiting outside the door to my mother's room, but I wasn't in the mood to think of them. Returning to my own level, my eyes went immediately to the bed. I could see Zane's dark hair on the pillow, but I crossed to his side before I confirmed that he was well. Chua was seated on the low couch where I had eaten breakfast with Eleanor, taking notes from a book opened before him; he stood in alarm when he first saw me but relaxed when he recognized me.
I looked down at Zane, thinking of Alasdair. Was I placing myself foolishly in harm's way? I remembered the look on Zane's face as he accepted death. I had faith in Karashan's assessment of his dedication to peace, but I was forced to remind myself that such did not necessarily endear me to him. But... I remembered also the fierceness in his eyes as he swore by the name of a goddess I did not know, binding himself to protect my people, swearing that I would never again have cause to fear him.
I sat on the edge of the bed and reached out to Zane, letting my fingers skim over his hair. I wasn't quite as bold as I had been last night, but I took a deep breath and held it as I let my fingers tangle more firmly in the dark strands, stroking them back from his face. He stirred under my hand and I stilled, watching him. I supposed that I was going to have to wake him soon, but there was a certain appeal to having him like this- without directly being confronted by anything, I could observe him, acclimate myself to him. I did have a feeling he would not approve of my thoughts.
I looked up to find Rei standing at my shoulder. I blinked a moment; Chua must have announced to the guards outside the door that I had returned to the room. Rei was looking at me with an almost unfathomable look in his eyes, but I smiled to see him. "I'm glad that you're back," I said. I kept my voice soft, but Zane stirred again anyway.
Rei watched him for a moment. "Yes," he said finally. "Betsy will be bringing lunch in a moment." He made no attempt to keep his voice low. "Chua says you should wake him."
Under the cloak of night, the Ravens gather.
Word has spread like wildfire and they know that the cobra is in the Keep.
They know that their commander had planned to present to the Tuuli Thea the foreigner they had brought, so they know that the Tuuli Thea, at the least, is protected, but they are eager for battle.
They hear that the foreign hunter failed. They hear that their commander has called off the attack.
When Karashan comes to them, later in the night, they are angry and worried. Karashan is silent after she lands before them and they are silent as well, waiting for her words. They will not wait forever, they will not even wait long, but they respect her and her position enough to wait for a while. When she does address them finally her words are unbelievable. The cobra lives; peace is preserved with the serpiente.
It is a word that has no meaning. There is no context, no frame of reference. There is no desire, no longing for a way of life that is utterly incomprehensible. They would as soon wish for gills as to wish for peace, these young soldier with the blood hot in them, fed on stories of the treachery of the foe that they have dedicated their lives to defeating.
The older soldiers shift their feet. They are tired. Peace is a promise, a hope. Something unrealized but something they have striven for all their lives. Something their own parents and grandparents have whispered to them about achieving, at some far distant point in the future; whispers that only now, in the stillness of their weary hearts, can they truly hear. But the weariness also defeats hope, because they have been there. They have seen the enemy, and they know that peace is something that cannot be trusted.
So, all are agreed. Peace is impossible. They already knew this, that's why they sent for the hunter. So, why is it again the issue of discussion?
"I have seen the heart of the cobra," Karashan says to them, "and it beats only for peace."
They scoff. They, for the first time, doubt their commander.
But their commander is filled with a fire they have never seen in her before.
"Have you not trusted me with your lives, to all of our advantage? Have I not brought you successfully home from more campaigns than you can count? Will you doubt me now? Will you doubt that I know what it is I speak of?"
They shuffle their feet and do not look at her. But she doesn't want their penitence. She wants their belief.
"Follow me, once more," she urges, and they agree, eager for action. "Follow me and see."
And so, she takes to the air and they follow. She leads them to the borderlands, to the very edge of where the serpiente wait for them. They form up behind the lines of their own people, greeted with shouts of surprise and impatient queries for information. Only rumors have come from the Keep and, in the darkness of a night so still it seems to deny the fact that world altering changes are taking place somewhere, elsewhere, the soldiers are nervous for reliable report.
"I come to you directly from the Hawk's Keep," Karashan says, her voice clear, and even across the way the serpiente can hear her. "I have myself seen the Tuuli Thea this night, and her alistair." Murmurs rise, but Karashan has the voice of an old soldier and she speaks over them without trouble. "Zane Cobriana of the serpiente stands as alistair to the Tuuli Thea."
The murmurs become shouts of incredulity, but Karashan stands like a rock in a gale. "I have heard him speak the vows," she says, "and I know that the Tuuli Thea is bound as well to the serpiente people."
The shouts die away to the quiet of true disbelief, and a voice rises from among the serpiente. "It is true that Danica Shardae stands as Naga of the serpiente. I myself witnessed the ceremony."
This statement is greeted by jeers from her people and Karashan shouts them to silence. In that silence the serpiente calls out again. "You say you have come from the Keep just now, raven. We have heard rumors as well... but you say that Zane lives." The words are not a question, but she can hear the desperation behind them, the hope.
"He lives," she confirms, "He sleeps this night beside his Naga."
Again, her own people hiss in disapproval at her words, but she shakes them off and she walks forward from the safety of their lines. Her Flight cries out, reaches to stop her, but she sidesteps their hands and waves them back. She goes and stands in the open area that lies between the two lines and she looks across at the serpiente, the faint light of a newly born moon falling over her.
"I confess that practice has made me good at the art of war. I confess that it was I who sought beyond the edges of our lands for the hunter who could rid my people of their long-standing enemy. It was I who brought him to the Keep, and it was I who saw him die beneath the fangs of Zane Cobriana with gladness." She bows her head, completely vulnerable to attack, from either side. "I serve, first and only, my Tuuli Thea. She has told me there is peace with the serpiente. I am sworn to serve her, and so I am sworn to peace."
Her people, behind her, have fallen silent. Across from her she sees the flicker of motion, and then, slowly, a form appears. It is the slender silhouette of a serpiente. A woman, Karashan sees as the other approaches, who comes forward without weapons and stands before Karashan.
The two women look at each other, then the serpiente speaks. "I too thought that my Diente was crazy when he came before us and declared that the hawk was his Naga. I thought that there must be some mistake when he professed his love for her in the synkal. But I also serve, first and only, my Diente. If he is committed to peace, even now, then I am committed as well."
Karashan bows her head. "Your bravery and loyalty are admirable. Might I know your name?"
The serpiente bows her head as well. "Pamela," she offers. "And you?"
"Karashan, of Raven Flight."
Pamela blinks in surprise. "I am impressed to find you here Karashan, but I am glad to know it is you who speaks. You have a reputation for... persistent dedication to... truth, and I now give even greater weight to your words."
The words she says have obviously been edited from what Karashan's true reputation is among the serpiente, but Karashan only smiles. She senses someone moving behind her and sees Pamela prepare to move back in response, but it is only her Ravens, coming out behind Karashan. They kneel behind her, placing their weapons on the ground, following their leader even now. Pamela holds her own ground, more of her own people fading out of the darkness to flank her. They are weaponless as well, and for a moment there is silence throughout the darkness, silence in the stillness, and silence in the straining moonlight, as everyone holds their breath, waiting. They stand upon the edge of something sharp and dangerous and new, and even those who do not fully understand what is happening can feel it.
Pamela reaches out her hand, and Karashan reaches out as well, clasping the other woman by the forearm. Slowly, their people move forward. Slowly, they mingle. Slowly, slowly... but they do.
In the strange surreality of the time between night and dawn they move among each other and speak to each other. The serpiente watch their avian enemies with wariness, but then one reaches out to pat the other soldier on the shoulder. Instantly everyone around them freezes, staring at the offender, but the avian so accosted only nods his head stiffly as the hand is withdrawn. Conversation bubbles up again and, though reserved, it is amiable enough given where they were yesterday, mere hours ago, with arrows on the string and fingers curled tightly around blade hilts and staves as they watched each other with fear and hatred. The animosity flickers back at times, with an unguarded, too swift movement, or with a humorous remark that, tested well on previous comrades, falls on the grounds of tastelessness with new acquaintances. But each is willing to overlook missteps, if those around them also overlook their own blunders.
It is the magic of the pre-dawn, Karashan thinks. Of the wan light of the waxing moon, and the mist rising from the ground. The dreamlike state of the world keeps the strangeness of their actions from having full impact. She hopes it will last through the morning at least, and perhaps longer. She is having fun, trading stories with Pamela and two of her lieutenants. The initial topic of conversation is the crazy behavior one puts up with from superiors and, though Karashan is not so familiar with her own monarch she notices that they are both careful to cast no insults against the other's. Quickly, the favored general topic becomes cultural exchange, and when Karashan hears the familiar refrain of a popular avian song rising above the general murmur her heart seizes in her. She stops speaking for a moment and turns to watch as one of her young soldiers stands and sings, his performance greeted with nods of appraisal from the avians beside him and a sudden flurry of heads tucked together and a waving of hands from the serpiente. One of the serpents approaches the young avian soldier and asks him to sing it again. He does, faltering for a moment as a small group of serpiente move to the center of a clear area and start dancing. The singer's voice picks up again, though there is an odd edge to it, and everyone watches. The serpiente improvise a dance to the unfamiliar song, some merely standing back and keeping beat.
Karashan knows what she expects from the serpent's infamous dancing, and she is quite surprised when what she expects is nothing that she sees. The dancers' movements are fluid and sensual, but there is nothing erotic in the gestures. Perhaps it is that there is no costume to bare skin, the soldiers dance in their customary gear, or perhaps it is that this is obviously a dance of joy rather than pleasure, of thankfulness and simple things. Pamela smiles, trying to hide the breadth of the expression, and says with false modesty, "They are not trained dancers, of course. But we, all of us, like to feel the movement of the music." Already another group of serpiente is critiquing the dance, suggesting different moves, and another group is teaching a collection of avians the simple percussion beats of a traditional serpiente dance song.
It cannot last, as moments of true beauty never can. The dawn is breaking red and bright on the horizon, and a clarion cry rises from behind her own lines. Karashan turns in alarm. She hears also the crashing sound of a horse stumbling to a halt behind serpiente lines and voices raised there; Pamela rises and turns toward the sound, but instead of leaving she calls out her position to the messenger and calls him forward.
The messengers are dazed from the quickness of their race to bring information, dazed by the scene they've wandered into. They are brought forth to the center where the light falls over the mingled soldiers. A shaky sparrow is brought to Karashan even as a young serpiente is persuaded to leave his mount and come forward to Pamela. The two messengers look across at each other with unfathomable eyes.
"Ambush," the sparrow breathes. "They fell upon us as we slept." His eyes are huge in his face and his gaze is fixed on Karashan.
"We attacked the supply train, that brings their poison," the serpiente counters. "But their forces outnumber us; if we don't have backup..." He trailed off, breathing heavily, trying to take in the scene around him.
Karashan recognizes the sparrow. "You're from Brenson Silvermead's Flight," she says, and the other avian nods. Karashan sighs and waves for her Ravens. She turns to Pamela. "I must go, and quickly. Brenson will recognize no authority lower than mine, and might not even recognize one higher." She hesitates, but states clearly, plainly, "I will counsel him to withdraw." She eyes her Flight. "Remember, by the words of the Tuuli Thea there is peace. To strike at a serpiente soldier is to strike at one of your own."
Pamela is commanding her own soldiers to gather their mounts. They will move swiftly, but not as swiftly as wings. Karashan hesitates. She offers, because she knows that if her Tuuli Thea was here the hawk would want it, "I can have my people fly you to the place."
Pamela freezes. Fear is back in her face, but she swallows it and regards Karashan evenly. "I will send my people by horse," she says. "But I will go with you."
The ripples run through the crowd- of disbelief, wonder, shock, anger- but there is no time. Karashan nods, spreads her demi wings, kneels, and holds out her hands to the sandy colored taipan that writhes on the ground before her now. She closes her eyes as the scales touch her and she cannot suppress the shudder that grips her body. But as long, long feet of snake curl around her body, as her own Flight watches her with something akin to respect but perhaps closer to sheer awe, she stands, only faltering once, and takes to flight. Her wings bear her up into the sunrise, and, as she tries to put from her mind the coils curled snugly around her body and the tongue that whispers against her arm in a fear of the serpent's own, she knows she has a long morning ahead of her.
(This chapter was heavily inspired by the movie Joyeux Noel and written almost entirely to the soundtrack of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" on repeat.)
Chapter 5: Chapter 5
I touched Zane's shoulder and shook him gently. "Zane," I called.
He blinked, tensed slightly, then looked up at me and relaxed. "Danica," he said, his voice muzzy. He blinked again, as if surprised to find the room bathed in light. "What time is it?"
"Midday," I replied. "How do you feel?"
He reached to touch the back of his neck hesitantly. The bandage there was still clean; either Chua had changed it recently or else it had stopped bleeding altogether. Zane looked a little disoriented, and I wondered what his dreams had been. "I'm fine." He rubbed the back of his neck gently, his eyes staring off into the distance. "It... was real?" he murmured.
I barely heard him, and even more so didn't want to answer, but I did. "Yes," I assured him. I touched his arm hesitantly. "It's all real."
He looked up at me, his gaze sharp and piercing as he held mine for a moment. My heart fluttered in my throat as the steady gaze of Cobriana garnet locked on mine. Rei, who had moved a few feet away, shifted his feet dangerously, but I broke away from Zane's gaze to level a glare at Rei. Zane hadn't tried to hold me; when I looked back, he met my eyes again, some emotion flickering through his too quickly for me to identify.
"Well," he said as he moved to gather his hands under him and pushed himself up. "I've lazed away half the day; I suppose I should get up at last."
Ailbhe moved up near the bed and I rose and stood back as the guardsman offered his hand. Zane ignored it, slowly arranging himself into a sitting position and getting his feet on the floor. Once there however, he faltered, swaying precariously as he attempted to stand. Ailbhe steadied him with a wry look and helped him stay on his feet. I could see that Zane was annoyed and, familiar enough with not wanting to share weakness, I turned to scan the room to see if I needed to clear it.
But, except for Rei, the room was empty; apparently after notifying Rei and Ailbhe, Chua had vanished, and no one else had braved whoever was on guard outside in order to sneak in. I turned back to find Zane firmly on his feet and regarding his hands with distaste. I could see the dusty almost brown of dried blood caught under his nails and scattered in places across his shoulder blades.
"Lunch is on the way," I told him softly. "If you would like to wash up first," I motioned to the side room, across the main room of my suit from where we stood.
He nodded. "Thank you, Danica." He regarded the distance with some trepidation, but started walking slowly, trying to surreptitiously wave away Ailbhe who stuck resolutely to his elbow.
I went to Rei; I was eager to speak with him after the confrontation with my mother, and I wanted to hear about his trip with Adelina. I felt a bit guilty about forcing him to do it and a selfish part of me wanted him to reassure me that it had been a productive and easy trip.
"It went well enough," Rei said in response to my query, but was reluctant to say anything else. "We went there and came back," he added when I urged him for more. "What did you expect to happen?" He was annoyed about something, and I stopped pressing him, turning as a knock at the door announced Betsy with lunch.
She entered with a smile, followed by Chua. For the first time I thought about it and realized that it was odd for Betsy to be so concerned with food preparation. I'd sent her to get something for Zane last night, but only because I wasn't sure who was awake at that point and she obviously knew exactly what would have been the best thing to bring. She must have seen the question on my face because she said, "Chua helped me pick out a selection for your lunch, Tuuli Thea." She looked at me sidelong, her expression serious. "I prepared it myself and it hasn't left my sight, so it should be safe."
"Oh, for..." I ran my hands through my hair. I hadn't even thought about being poisoned. "Is that really necessary?" I felt tired again.
Betsy shrugged. "Better safe than sorry," she said pragmatically.
I nodded woodenly and didn't even hear Chua's question. He must have been asking for Zane, because Rei waved him in the right direction as I sank onto one of the low couches beside the table where Betsy had set the tray.
Rei came over and knelt beside me. I turned toward him, and he said, apparently somewhat chagrined at his own previous shortness with me, "It is best to be cautious." He hesitated a moment but continued, "When we went last night to the Palace, the serpiente people in general seemed content to take Adelina's report at value." He met my eyes searchingly. "They are eager to not think badly of you, Dani." He looked away. "However, Charis especially is anxious to see Zane. It would be best if he and you return there quickly, to allay any suspicions."
I nodded. Personal verification of the truth would always win out over words spoken by another, no matter how trusted. That was the reason I used to walk the fields; people could talk and talk about the evils of war, but to walk among the dead and dying made you see things that no one could tell you about with words. At this point, I was just glad that Adelina hadn't been greeted by demands for war on her return. Anything less than that was something salvageable, something I could work with. It might weary me to the bone, but I could work with it. However, "We're not going anywhere until Zane can travel."
"He should be fine by tomorrow," Betsy put in, not in the least abashed as eavesdropping. "Not for anything too strenuous, mind you, but if he's up and about today he should be fine to travel the distance."
"Tomorrow?" My mind worked furiously. If we had the ceremony in the morning, we could travel that afternoon and be back with Zane's people by evening. I assumed we'd travel together by horse; in this case it was not advantageous for me to arrive before Zane, and I considered flying to be an activity on the strenuous side. But if he was just a passenger... "Could he fly with me?" I asked Betsy. Rei looked incredibly amused for some reason.
Betsy frowned. "I don't know. You should ask Chua, he would know better, but in general I would advise against it if not absolutely required. I can only imagine that it would be a great shock to his system."
Despite his amusement, or perhaps because of it, Rei agreed. "I can assure you that Adelina will insist we go on the ground." I wondered what had happened between them last night but resigned myself to never knowing.
Zane returned, looking brighter and more awake. Someone had brought him a new shirt as well, and he nodded to me as he sat down across from me. He met my eyes and said without preamble, "Tomorrow. We will have the public alistair ceremony here in the morning and return to the Palace that afternoon."
He clearly expected some sort of refusal, from myself or Betsy. I wondered if that was why Ailbhe looked cross. Chua looked somewhere between resigned and amused.
I looked at Betsy, amused despite myself, but Zane looked at her too, a challenge in his eyes. "If you are feeling well enough I do not advise against it," she said. "The wound is not so severe that you cannot travel. But," her expression grew hard, "take it easy for a few weeks. It will take at least 3 weeks, possibly longer, for your body to fully heal." Chua smirked, presumably having already given similar advice.
Zane was watching me; he still expected some sort of opposition, and I wondered again what his dreams had been. I nodded. "We were just discussing it, actually. Rei was counseling that it would be to our advantage to return quickly," I said, "and I agree."
"Well then." Zane's voice was flippant, but the intent weight of his eyes on me was anything but. "Forgive me for being presumptuous." I met his eyes fearlessly and he dropped them to his plate, his expression hidden from me as he bent to the lunch. I moved to eat as well and our audience faded away, slipping unnoticed from the room. The food was good, and I was hungry. Having missed breakfast, Zane was a great deal hungrier, and we ate in silence for long moments.
I lingered over my drink, watching him over the rim of the cup. There was a slight awkwardness as I became aware of the situation. We hadn't truly spoken to each other since last night. Since I had apologized for one of my generals trying to kill him. Though... I hadn't really apologized. Even confessing myself as I had last night, I'd been too much the politic ruler to admit to any level of complicity. But... "I'm sorry," I said. I fixed my eyes on my hands, suddenly far too guilty to look at him.
I heard him pause. "You have nothing to apologize for," he said finally.
I looked up sharply; his eyes were dark as blood when I met them. "Don't I?" I challenged. I tried not to wince at my own tactlessness, but I had to abandon my training and poise for the burning sorrow that filled me; the problem was that I didn't have words to express the feeling. What was the correct way to say, I'm glad you foiled the assassination attempt my people set up for you? Or to ask if he felt I was being too lenient with Karashan? Was there a polite way to say that while I was beginning to accept him as a man, rather than a demon, thinking about what we were trying to accomplish made me shiver and want to hide? "I can't help feeling that I could have done something more to prevent this," I settled on finally.
Zane huffed in frustration, standing and pacing around the back of the couch. He leaned on it, needing, I'm sure, the movement, the support, and perhaps the distance from me. "Danica," he began beseechingly, "you..." He faltered, his gaze focusing on some distant point behind me. "I know that Karashan did this without your asking it, don't worry about that." He eyes shifted to me. "I know a part of you wanted to let her." I jerked, stung, but stayed silent. He shook his head. "That's why you feel guilty. But Danica." His voice was a gentle caress against my name, and I shivered. "You are the reason that there is anything left for us to continue to build peace from." He gestured helplessly. "If you had left me to the hunter, we would not be having this conversation right now."
I closed my eyes. "Because you would have let him win."
"No." I opened my eyes again, but he wouldn't look at me. "I... I only accepted that as a last resort when I thought that you had conspired against me. If you had lied to me, then there was no hope left for any of us." I inhaled sharply and he looked at me then. A deeper understanding passed between us before he dropped his eyes to his hands and moved around to sit down again. "The Ichneumon are a legend among my people, ghosts of imagination. I still can hardly believe that they are real, much less that I..." He trailed off, a grin pulling at his mouth, a simple and irrepressible expression of giddy joy. It was a survivor's smile, and I had to return it; I was as glad as he was that he'd survived.
But I looked down for a moment and shivered. Karashan hadn't known it but she had almost brought us to a repetition of what had happened to Alasdair, only reversed this time. We would have been the source of the celebrated betrayal. I looked up and Zane caught my eyes, holding my gaze with no trick or ill intent. I looked into his eyes, a warmth fluttering in my chest that was different than what I had felt before. "You also," I said, licking suddenly dry lips, "are the reason there is anything left for us to make peace from. Not everyone would have believed me, and many would have held me responsible anyway."
We looked at each other for a long moment. He opened his mouth to speak, but a loud commotion outside the door was the precursor to Rei's sharp knock, and the door opened, spilling the commotion into my room.
"Apparently there was an altercation along the border, early this morning," Rei reported tersely. He motioned for the raven who had entered behind him to come forward.
The raven bowed to me, hesitated, then nodded stiffly to Zane. "Tuuli Thea," she began, hesitated again, then continued without addressing Zane; traditionally, reports were not made to the Tuuli Thea's alistair, but there was hardly anything traditional about the current situation. "I am Messua, of Raven Flight. This morning..."
"Raven Flight?" I interrupted her, my eyes narrowed. "What is Raven Flight doing in a border altercation last night?"
Messua paused, eyeing me askance. "Tuuli Thea, Raven Flight was not directly involved." She cleared her throat and began her report again. "This morning, just before dawn, a troop of serpiente soldiers crept behind the lines of an avian flight and set fire to their supplies, while the avian flight was distracted planning their own dawn ambush of the serpiente troop."
"Whose Flight?" I demanded, even as Zane hissed, "What troop commander?"
"Silvermead's Flight, Tuuli Thea. And the serpiente commander She're, I am told, sir." Messua cleared her throat again. "Karashan had led Raven Flight to the border and we were engaged in friendly exchange with a nearby serpiente troop, headed by one Pamela, when the runners reached us with the news. Karashan and Pamela went immediately to put an end to the conflict. Raven Flight, along with Sparrow Second Flight, went after, and Pamela's troop followed by ground.
"We arrived to find the altercation still being fought heavily, though both runners had come to us saying that their side was desperate for reinforcements. Karashan and Pamela were able to bring a halt to the battle, though by that time casualties were heavy. Both of the commanders initially involved were killed." I found myself clutching, in a sudden death grip, the cup that I had been holding. There was silence for a moment before Messua continued. "As the ranking officer present, Karashan has taken charge of the situation with Pamela's support. She is preparing a full report but sent me, primarily to ask of you how she should proceed." When neither Zane nor I leapt in with a comment, Messua continued, as if we needed the explanation, "While peace had been formally established prior to the conflict, the announcement of the agreement was not widespread. Karashan wishes to know if she should consider the altercation as a treasonous act, and collectively hold the participants as traitors."
I covered my face with my hand and thought longingly of the problems I'd had this morning. It seemed far too ironic to even be physically possible that Karashan should be the one to preside over this dispute- my first unwitting traitor now deciding the fate of others. I had forgiven her, but that had been in large part due to the sincerity of her conversion; I had no idea what to do with two large groups of people who probably hated each other even more now than they had before. Taking a deep breath, I looked over at Zane.
He appeared just as torn. "While your flight can believably plead ignorance of peace, She're should have known better." He spread his hands. "At the same time, they should be dealt with in the same manner or it will create more problems." He narrowed his eyes at me, and I realized that I had retreated behind my shield at the news. I tried to lower my barriers against him, but he went ahead and spoke first, "I am inclined to be lenient, in this case."
I nodded. "In our attempts to be secretive, especially on my part, we may have brought about this dilemma. At this point, the attack should not be considered treason unless it can be proven an individual acted in full knowledge of the fact that they were violating the peace." I turned my gaze on Messua. "Make sure Karashan knows, tomorrow morning we will be formally declaring Zane as my alistair. Peace between our peoples will at that point be irrevocable."
My expression hardened but Zane smiled mirthlessly as he finished for me, "At that point, there will be no more leniency."
Messua nodded and turned to leave. "Adelina," Zane called, and I turned to find her standing by the door, talking to Rei. I hadn't noticed her come in and, seeing her for the first time since last night, I found myself almost too embarrassed to look at her. It helped that she ignored me completely. "I'd like you to go with," Zane was saying. "At this early stage, I don't want it said that the avians were allowed sole hand in administering justice."
If Adelina went, she would outrank Karashan and herself oversee resolving the dispute. I expected her to jump at the chance and I didn't trust her to be impartial. I wasn't sure why; I didn't think it was because she was a serpent, but to say that it was simply because I knew she personally disliked me didn't seem like a good reason either. She surprised me on both counts. "I will make an appearance," she allowed, "and evaluate the situation. Pamela is a capable commander; I anticipate that my presence will not be required for long." She met Zane's eyes challengingly and I had the feeling that Rei had already told her about our plans for tomorrow. Zane sighed and nodded.
A knock at the door announced the arrival of Erica. She poked her head in, looking confused. "Commander," she addressed Rei, "you wanted to see me?" He ushered her to a different room, even as Messua and Adelina made plans for departure, and I closed my eyes against the whirl of emotion that filled me.
Soon it was just Zane and I again in my room. I looked over at him. He looked tired for someone who had just woken up, but even without last night the past hour had been enough to tire me out as well. "If we're planning a full day tomorrow," I reminded him, "you should get more rest."
He nodded absently. "I forgot to ask Messua," he mused, "what she meant by 'friendly exchange.'"
I frowned at him in confusion for a moment before I remembered her explanation for why Raven Flight had been in proximity to the altercation. "I suppose we'll have to wait for Karashan's report," I said thoughtfully; the true substance of Messua's message had been so dire as to make me overlook the positive aspects, but... they were there as well.
Zane sighed, standing slowly. I stood as well, not sure why, but the result was that we were both suddenly very close to each other. I looked up into his face even as he looked down into mine. He reached out, slowly, and touched my arm, a shiver of anticipation running through me as he trailed his fingers up my arm and over to cup my cheek. He leaned closer, his lips closing over mine, and I closed my eyes. My heart was beating double, triple time, but I was pretty sure it wasn't all fear.
The kiss was soft, slow, and deep, unlike the previous ones he'd stolen from me. I relaxed into his touch; my eyes were still closed as I parted my mouth. He deepened the kiss, breaking away momentarily only to lean in and kiss me again. The action was not entirely one-sided; I shyly responded, my own hand coming up to touch his arm. His hand slipped back to slide through my hair even as he dropped kisses along my chin and down my neck.
I wasn't sure who recoiled first, but we both did, rather violently. The moment his fingers touched the feathers under my hair he pulled back, as if just reminded of what he was doing, and who with. And as his lips touched my neck the image of fangs sinking into flesh exploded in my mind and I pushed away from him.
We stood regarding each other warily for a moment. Zane reacted first; his initial recoil had been of surprise rather than the fear that had suffused mine, and he pulled away further now, turning away from me. "I will find somewhere else to sleep. I'm sorry, I..." He trailed off, words failing him though he was shaking slightly with suppressed emotion.
The silence that filled the room was unbearable, and so fragile that to break it incorrectly would tear apart everything we had worked for. I almost didn't care; the need to speak, to say something that would prevent him from leaving, was so unbearable that I said the first thing that came into my head. "Could we try it again?" I asked. He turned back to me sharply. I was already blushing, but I was pretty sure I went redder in that moment, the blood pounding hotly in my veins. "Just... not on the neck?" I covered my face with my hands but forced myself to speak around my fingers. "I... it's not you, I just... In my head, I keep seeing you bite the hunter, and I..." Perhaps it was him then, but it wasn't that I thought he meant me harm, or even that I believed that he would bite me. I only... I swallowed. "Not on the neck," I repeated, "just yet."
He seemed to take in the meaning of my words and nodded slowly. He moved back over to me, his movements so fluid and strange that I shivered again but did not pull away as I looked up into his eyes. Oddly enough, he was the one who seemed hypnotized as he cupped my cheek and pressed his lips to mine. The kiss was chaste and quick, and he leaned back to look at me. "Perhaps we will save further exploration for a later date." His thumb brushed over my cheek heavily, his eyes fixed on the play of his skin over mine, and I shivered at the look in their garnet depths. For a moment, I could see what it was that my mother had warned me about. But he pulled back; even as I had gotten better at dropping my armor, he had gotten better at raising his own and he withdrew behind it, hiding himself from me. "I think I shall take my rest." He couldn't quite hold himself back entirely and he took my hand and kissed it, turning it over to press his lips to my wrist. I wouldn't look at him, but I didn't resist, and he released me finally and went to the bed.
I had the presence of mind not to just duck out the balcony window and fly away, but I needed to fly, to be alone with my thoughts. When I opened the door and stepped out into the hall I found it calmer than it had been this morning; Ailbhe slipped into the room behind me and Rei didn't try to speak to me, simply waving two of the ever present legion of his Flight to follow me as I shed all human seeming and left the earth behind.
The air was warm under my wings and cool on my face as I gave myself to the physical exertion and the mental freedom that came with it. What was I doing? I didn't love Zane Cobriana. I was beginning to like him well enough; I didn't live in fear of him anymore, that was certain. The avian rumors of the hot headed serpiente nature and their incapability of being trusted was so ingrained in me that at times it was startling to find that he was capable of being a rational and intelligent being. Strange that, when he had told me that serpiente legend held that avians had no souls, I hadn't thought that such rumors worked both ways; perhaps my people hadn't held his as soulless, but without morals or the capacity for restraint. In some ways I held him separate from the rest of his people; that was a way of thinking that was going to have to change if this peace was ultimately going to work.
But back to the issue at hand, Danica... Why was I so permissive of amorous attentions from the man? He had always initiated our previous contact, but even shocked by his forwardness I had never been unwilling. And now, I was the one urging him on. It was true that he was my alistair, and the position, and the attendant benefits, was neither expected nor guaranteed to come with love. Affection, respect, and trust perhaps, but not love, so it made no sense that I should deny him because I did not love him. I trusted him; I had admitted to affection for the man and I was surprised to find, examining myself now, that the fondness was neither feigned nor temporary. Respect... My wings faltered slightly on the air. I rather thought that I respected him as well.
I had gone into this arrangement aware of the sacrifice I was making for my people. At some point that I couldn't quite identify, it had stopped being a sacrifice. There were people that I loved, one in particular... but it was strange how I felt now that I, personally, had never thought of Rei as someone who would be my alistair. He was my best friend, and so much more, but...
I remembered my dream, the first night I had slept beside Zane. Vasili had applauded my choice then, even if just in my own thoughts, but I wondered... if perhaps he had known all along.
It was hours later when I landed back on the high balcony of the Hawk's Keep and went into my room, going to the bed and looking down at Zane's sleeping features. There was an odd sense of repetition about the action; I had done the same thing this morning, true, but I felt that it was something more than just that. As if, in the times that Zane had crept into my room in the dark of the night to watch me, asleep, I now watched him, also asleep in the golden afternoon sunlight. There was a certain rhythm to it, and it sat well in me even if I wasn't sure I knew what to do with it.
"Tuuli Thea," a voice summoned me softly, and I looked up to see the escort from my long flight had gone to the door where Karl was beckoning to me. "Tuuli Thea, you are needed."
I nodded and turned from the bed, though weary as I was, in both mind and body, it looked quite inviting. But the weariness was invigorating in a way, and I walked to the door with energy in my steps. I would finish this day, then I would sleep again beside my alistair, and tomorrow we would return to his people. I took it one bit at a time, because that was the only way to take it. And because... Alice stood by the door, alone, guarding Zane's sleep. I had seen her as I entered, and she nodded to me now as I passed her on my way out to the hall and the rest of the keep.
I was filled with the knowledge that this was going to work, and it gave me hope.
Chapter 6: (Interlude: Rei)
He has informed Erica of her father's death, and he watches her leave now, her face shuttered against a pain that is both real and untrue, any emotion held rigidly in check. He allows himself a sigh. They are both refugees of the same system of repression, more militant than the one that shelters them now, and it cuts at his heart- the lies, the hiding- even as he embraces it fully. Denial of self has been the norm and rule for as long as he can remember, and it is only added to by the fact that it now aids his cause.
Since before he had been himself, Danica was everything to him. She was passionate and caring; she was strong and just; she was so beautiful in her fierceness and in her fragility. She was the most perfect hawk to ever dazzle a young falcon's eyes.
Sometimes he thinks it is his fault. That she saw the darkness in life because of him, because he could not stop her, could not protect her. She went to the field of battle to seek him, and he could not stop her. On that day, the day he died- which is also the day he became himself- on that day, Andreios began to become the one who would protect her from everything. That one mistake, the one thing he could not save her from seeing, became the driving force of his life. His sworn purpose.
Existing for a purpose is so different from existing in stillness. There is a forward anticipation to it, an expectancy. There are... emotions, that he allows himself to feel; people he allows himself to reach for. He has never had to reach for anything, before her. But now he reaches for her, seeks her approval. He has dedicated himself to perfecting himself, for her. He has learned humility, for her. He has become a great warrior, for her. He hoped that she would see...
But the things that Danica sees are different from the things that he sees. She embraces her place, the power she holds, while he ran from his own place, his rank in a stagnant system, being bound so heavily that he could not move, could not breathe. He left his life behind and forged a new one. Perhaps they are not so different, in that, he and Danica, as she forges a new world around her, refusing to accept the imperfect one that was pressed upon her.
But they could not be more different.
She knows the meaning of sacrifice, of shedding tears for people who will never know what she has given up for them, the nights without sleep she has spent agonizing over their fates. She could have stayed in her tower, stayed safely away from everything. But the beauty of Danica is that it would take a power greater than any he has ever known to have kept her there.
And him? Does he have such a heart of compassion? No; he has more in common with Erica than he does with that glorious hawk. But for all that they are so different, he understands her. He knows the secret fears of her heart better than she does, he thinks. He knows how it breaks his own to be unable to reciprocate. To be unable to confess himself fully to her. He fears so much the loss of her regard, even more than he fears losing her.
He stands in the court of the Keep, the entire floor packed as full as possible with avians; every surface as well packed with transformed bodies perched precariously. They all have their eyes focused on one thing, they all came here to see one thing, and as Zane Cobriana stands before them Rei can hear the collective intake of their breath. They stare down with generations of hatred and fear boiling out of their veins, and Zane stands steeled under the weight of their eyes. His own gaze rests somewhere past Rei's temple as the ceremony begins, but, when he speaks the words, he meets the crow's eyes. Rei has no fear himself of captivating garnet, but the cobra doesn't try to hold him. In his eyes is only determination. Rei is not surprised; they've done this before.
The watchers are surprised. They hear the cobra's words, and even as they think to themselves that the serpiente are deceivers, they must agree that he certainly sounds like he means it.
Before, they had heard the stories, but they didn't believe. Here, now, as the cobra speaks the words from a heart that is as human as theirs, stands back and takes the Tuuli Thea's hand, they are confronted with it. They cannot deny rumor and they cannot say that it cannot be so. They must take what they see and deal with it. The courtyard is silent as each does so in his or her own heart.
Amid their audience's dazed uncertainty, Danica turns to Zane and smiles softly. They are easy together, despite the nerves and the pressure of watching eyes.
Like the rest, Rei watches them. The snake stands comfortable in a place that should have been his.
No, that is the wrong thought. Nothing should have been, except what Danica wished.
It was a place in which he would have liked to stand.
But he accepts this outcome; has accepted it. He wishes he could have protected her from this, but truly he thinks he has known for a long time. Danica was always less practiced than he at hiding her true self, and that she cares for him has always been apparent. But that she cares for her people more he has always known. The irony is that the very thing that keeps her from him, is the very thing he loves about her so deeply. Truly, to be her alistair was never more than a fantasy anyway. A royal line needs heirs, and if there is anything that will call the attention of his former life more quickly, he does not know it.
He does not hate the serpiente. He does not like them, but the enmity is not bred into him like it has been for the rest. He does not resent either, at the end. It is Danica's choice, and the love he has for her surpasses the love one man can have for a woman. It is the love of an awed subject for a sovereign worthy of that awe, the kind of emotion he could have only dreamed of before.
To be more than "just"- just a friend, just a guard. This is what he feels like he should want, what others might say he's been denied... But she is more than just anything to him. Danica is everything. In whatever way he can serve her vision, that is enough for him. More than enough.
He thinks that the Hawk's Keep was the perfect training ground for him: to lose what he was and open himself to what he could be, all while pretending to be someone else.
But he has stopped pretending. Had stopped, long ago. The more he denies who he was, the more he becomes who he truly is. He is Andreios, and he will give everything within him for his queen.
Whether she will ask for it or not.
Chapter 7: Chapter 7
Though tiring, the afternoon's ride was uneventful. I wasn't sure why I expected it to be otherwise; we rode with a full guard. An additional group of serpiente guards met our party as we made our way to the palace. The most stressing part of the trip was the eyes upon me and Zane. Watching eyes considered us and, depending on the watcher, weighed each of us and our worthiness. It made the trip, bound to the speed of ground travel, feel even longer.
That morning, Zane had spoken the alistair vows before an audience so large I was still in shock as to how they had all managed to fit into the Keep's court. They had not been limited to horizontal surfaces to stand on; some transformed and clung to walls to watch us with their far-seeing avian eyes. Not a single protest was uttered during the ceremony, not a single word in the silence. Zane's voice rang with sincerity, and I just hoped the recognition of that sincerity was what had silenced the crowd. I hoped it was belief rather than shock or plotting that stilled their tongues and fixed their eyes. I hoped... but still I worried. It seemed too easy; were they truly so accepting of what I'd done? I'd overthrown their entire way of life; for the better perhaps, but change was always to be greeted with suspicion. Thoughts and behaviors ingrained didn't change overnight. While I accepted the complete support of people like Karashan, because I understood the reasons for her conversion, I wasn't sure I could trust my people to be sincere without my having to take each of them by the hand and explain everything that there were no words to explain.
And now I was headed back into enemy territory. By which I meant a group of people whom I was even more unused to reading, but even in that simple thought-image could be seen how far there was yet to go. They had accepted me as Naga, but that had been before Zane had almost died while visiting the Keep.
Charis rode out from the palace to meet us. I wasn't sure whether it was a sign of good faith or a mother's desperate need to see the truth, but Irene was not with her which I took as a sign that tensions were still high. She embraced Zane heartily and spent several minutes letting her eyes take him in. He bore it with good grace. At last she looked to me and I was chagrined by my own surprise at the welcome in her smile. She clasped my hands and looked as though she would have embraced me as well but refrained on my own account.
We continued back to the palace and met Irene waiting for us in the main hall. Her guards lingered around her as the Royal Flight entered with me, but Zane went directly to her and they embraced for a long time. I watched them silently; I had never been so close to my own siblings, and even though Zane, and Irene, had lost more than I they still had each other while I was alone in that. It was a thought that lingered too heavily in the past and I pushed it from my mind as they turned to me. I smiled lightly as Irene came forward and clasped my hands as her mother had, as if she couldn't quite express the depth of her emotion in a way that I could understand and was still determined to not offend. It was almost as if I was the one who had brought Zane back to them safely, and I blushed and pulled away. I couldn't think of anything further from the truth.
One of the serpiente guards had pressed in and was talking to Zane as I had my moment with Irene, and I shifted my attention to what he was saying as his voice was raised. "Zane you can't be serious! You need to take firm action against this one or else there will be others who try." The guardsman appeared to be quite sincere, but Zane was regarding him with dark eyes.
"What is the problem?" I asked.
Rei, who, with Karl, was flanking me surreptitiously, answered. "Guardsman Kyler is concerned that if strong action is not taken against Karashan then there will be others who will organize attempts on Zane's life."
Zane remained silent; his eyes on me seemed to say that it was my decision to make. I wished he would give me some small indication as to his feelings on the matter. I had been worried about this exact issue just yesterday.
I leveled a cool gaze at the guardsman. He met my eyes fearlessly and without looking away; to me this showed that his true concern was for Zane, rather than for punishing Karashan, and I answered him more softly than I would have if it had been otherwise. "Karashan is wholly repentant for her actions and has already taken great steps toward spreading the word of peace to others." I took a deep breath. "However, it is fully Zane's decision as to what punishment she should receive for her actions." I looked to Zane to find him watching me with surprise. "You are the wronged party as well as my alistair and I will support whatever determination you make."
The hall was silent for a moment; quiet enough that I could hear Karl grinding his teeth. Zane's response was politic, but also, I believed, heartfelt.
"In keeping with our previously determined leniency toward those who acted without knowledge of the peace that you and I were laying the foundation for," he said thoughtfully, "I do not wish to cast punishment upon one whose only crime is to love her Tuuli Thea. Karashan has shown that her ultimate loyalty is to the goals of her queen, whatever they may be, rather than a vendetta against myself. As she is now one of my own subjects, having proven herself a true comrade in arms, it is my decision to refrain from exacting any punishment for this particular incident."
Kyler frowned, but nodded. I nodded as well and, remembering that I was not in my own familiar court, permitted myself a broad smile. I moved to stand beside Zane. He reached for my hand; the gesture was subtle, able to be disguised easily if I was resistant. I think I surprised us both when I was anything but, taking his hand in mine and leaning against him. He watched me for a moment before he glanced away, and I felt the firm pressure of his fingers as his hand tightened around mine.
I was tired, and my mind quickly focused on the presence of him close to me, unwilling to admit other thoughts. Perhaps she noticed my inability to pay attention to court politics while sitting still this evening, but Charis suggested we use what time was left in the day to take a walk through the synkal before retiring.
The eyes of the serpiente were as heavy upon us as we walked as the avians had been at the ceremony this morning. It was turning out to be a thoroughly exhausting day, and I placed my other hand on Zane's arm softly, knowing he would be even more tired than I. Thankfully, most of his people seemed to be able to sense our exhaustion; for the most part they seemed to be satisfied with simple visual confirmation that their Diente lived and that peace was preserved. We wove our way quickly through the synkal, only stopping twice to converse with serpiente.
We were almost back to the palace when a woman approached us. "Zane," she addressed him with a smile.
He smiled as well. "A'isha," he greeted her, explaining to me, "A'isha is the leader of the Dancer's Nest."
She bowed to me and I returned the gesture. "I don't mean to keep you long, but I had a question I was hoping you could answer for me, Zane."
Her question seemed to be for him alone and looking up I spotted Irene not far away talking to a guardsman who looked familiar.
I squeezed Zane's hand before slipping away from him with a small smile. "I wanted to have a quick chat with Irene. I will see you later?"
He caught my hand again to press a kiss to the back of my fingers. I smiled in response. There was a guardedness in his expression that lightened at my response.
I walked toward Irene. She noticed me, glancing up with a smile, and said something to her companion. He spoke to her and then slipped away.
"I didn't mean to scare him off," I said as I approached.
Irene smiled. "It's a relief actually. He's been hovering."
"Ah." I faltered for a moment, unsure of how to continue, but Irene saved me with a smile.
"His name is Galen." Her hand touched her stomach surreptitiously before falling to her side, hiding the gesture from the synkal.
"He is the father," I guessed, and Irene nodded. I turned with her and we walked together in silence for a moment. As we moved away from the main part of the synkal and back toward the palace, I became aware of someone following us. I glanced back to see that it was Alice, and I sighed. But she was talking with Theodore, the serpiente guard, pretending as if they weren't following us but just having a conversation with the same destination, and I smiled.
"I imagine this morning was somewhat stressful for you as well," I mused to Irene.
She laughed. "Well I can't say I'm not glad that you both are here now, where I can watch you." It was unspoken that she felt we were safer among serpiente, and I heard the hesitation in her voice.
"I understand that," I thought, out loud. "I feel the same in some ways, that I would rather be home, among what is familiar. And then I think that is exactly the way I should not feel." I looked over at her.
Irene's expression was thoughtful for a moment. She turned to me, and her focus shifted. "So, how is my brother, really?" Irene's manner was intent, and I realized that no one had mentioned the Ichneumon hunter since I'd arrived, not by chance but because the topic had been deliberately avoided. I'd thought Irene believed me free of culpability, but in her gaze now I saw a predator ready to strike if she believed I threatened what was hers. I was startled into meeting her eyes fully, and those garnet orbs caught me in a way Zane's never did. I couldn't move, my eyes fixed on hers. It was so quick; I was sure Irene hadn't realized what had happened until Alice drew her dagger.
I reached out and placed a hand on Alice's arm, not trusting my voice. Theodore had moved between his princess and us. Irene opened her mouth, to apologize I assumed from the look of horror on her face, but I took a deep breath and answered her before she could speak. "He is well. Betsy says it will take some short time yet before he is fully healed, though I did not hear what counsel Chua gave on the matter and his is likely to be the more accurate report."
Irene nodded and I prayed she would not attempt to apologize again. I couldn't see this peace working if people had to stop and excuse each other every time they spoke; it would be better if we just got used to each other. "I will ask Chua then," Irene said, her voice somewhat stiff, but I smiled widely, and she returned the gesture. Everyone relaxed, and we started walking again, Alice and Theodore falling a few paces behind, though they had given up the pretense of conversation and were watching us intently.
"I had meant to ask also," Irene said after a few moments, her voice serious but her eyes studiously not looking at me, "how are the pair of you doing, together? With everything?"
I blushed, because during the ride here from the Keep my head had been filled with thoughts of mine and Zane's first night together, here in this place, with him warm against me. "We are... well." It was weak, and not only Irene but Alice and Theodore were listening to my words, eager for more. My blush deepened. I had an idea what Irene really wanted to know. My refusal to answer should be answer enough, I thought, though it was possible she put it down to avian prudishness.
Irene took my hand lightly, pulling me out of my reverie. She held on to it as if to focus her words, and we stopped walking. "Danica, he is... very passionate. Be careful."
She had caught my attention and I fixed her with suddenly intent eyes. Was Irene giving me the same warning my mother had? That was... too unreal to be possible. I had to be misunderstanding her words. "How do you mean?"
She watched me carefully. "He will be patient with you, for you, but be careful. If you hold him away from you for too long, it will crush him."
I didn't truly believe that anything that I could do would have such an effect on Zane. Though, when he had thought that I had betrayed him, that had nearly crushed him. But... For all that I rarely initiated, Zane had always been the one to pull back first in our explorations. "He has been very patient," I mused aloud. "Too patient, perhaps." Irene raised a questioning eyebrow at me. I shook my head and confessed the mild frustration that had been weighing on me during the ride over. "He will not push me into anything that I am not ready for or that I do not want, but–" I sighed. "I do not know that I will ever be ready unless... unless he pushes me. Unless I can... explore the idea of it." I frowned. "That probably doesn't make sense."
Irene wrinkled her nose in confusion, and I became suddenly aware of our audience again as Alice pursed her lips and answered, "It makes sense to me." Irene, Theodore, and I all looked at her. Blushing, Alice continued. "It is like when I first learned to fight. You are not easy with the blade at first, but when you have spent time training you learn familiarity and you wield it more comfortably." She blushed when we all stared at her and seemed to belatedly realize what exactly we were talking about, and with whom. "Not that you use your alistair as a weapon... I mean... um, Tuuli Thea," she finished miserably.
Irene grinned, the expression slowly spreading across her face. "He can be abrasive and cutting, so it's not an analogy that's completely off. And I think I see what you mean, too." Her expression was thoughtful again and she shrugged. "Being easy and comfortable with other people is something serpiente learn when we are very young, if we ever even needed to learn it at all. Serpiente are never alone; even when we are young, if we cannot be with our parents then we are in a nursery with other children." She paused before continuing. "Zane is very conscientious about not... forcing you, amorously. It is a... a terrible crime to our people; the most terrible." Theodore seemed appalled that Irene could even mention such a thing and her brother in the same sentence, and I grasped more from his expression than from her words. "His focus on that worry may be clouding his ability to see that that isn't the problem."
I was blushing as deeply as Alice at Irene's inferences, but two thoughts stuck in my mind. The first was that I agreed "that" was not going to be a problem, if Zane could allow me to gradually become accustomed to intimacy and not expect everything in one night. The other thought gave me some insight into his thinking. "My mother accused him of planning to force me." Irene was scandalized, and I heard an abortive exclamation from the mostly silent Theodore, but I was pursuing my thought and didn't stop for them. "She... made a comment during the alistair ceremony. I wasn't sure what she meant to express other than she disapproved of my choice, but Zane reacted as if she had struck him." I met Irene's furious eyes and smiled self-deprecatingly. "Perhaps I am the one who needs to be patient with him."
"She accused him–?"
I held up a hand. "Nacola and I were speaking alone in her quarters when she spoke more freely with me. She mentioned then that she did not think Zane would be able to show restraint when I was hesitant." I made a dismissive gesture. "I told her he had been nothing but gentlemanly with me."
Irene seemed somewhat pacified, though still angry on her brother's behalf. Theodore was holding his spear tightly enough that I assumed he was wishing that there was no such thing as peace. Alice seemed just as shocked as them, though I wasn't sure what exactly had disturbed her. I thought it would be a good thing if Nacola did not journey to visit the serpiente any time soon.
"Not to leave you on such a poor note, but is it getting quite late." Full night had fallen around us. We had wandered off the main path and I wasn't sure if Zane had returned to the palace yet.
Irene smiled, though the expression was slightly more forced than it had been earlier. "You have had a long day. You must be tired."
"And you as well." I smiled and took her hand. "Take care of yourself. And thank you for your words."
Her smile was more genuine then and her eyes met mine for a long moment. "Take care of him," she responded, and I nodded.
The palace was a maze that I had not had time yet to explore, but Theodore showed Alice and I to my door. We learned from another guard that Zane had already retired for the night.
The room Theodore showed me to was the room I had stayed in the last time I had been here. I pushed it open and found the bags I had brought had been placed on the floor beside the trunks, but the room was empty. I frowned, and Alice eyed me questioningly. I waved her off as I moved to the door that I thought I remembered being the one that adjoined Zane's room. "I am fine for the night. Please return to your room, or report to Andreios if you need to."
"Yes, Tuuli Thea." She bowed and she and Theodore left me.
I pushed the door open, musing that I should have more female guards; maybe it was just Alice, but they seemed to more easily understand sense than their male counterparts.
Zane's room was dark. I had not been in it before, so I returned to my room for a candle before venturing further in. A large bed was situated to my left and a single form was lying curled up on that bed. At my entrance, Zane pushed himself up to eye me silently. He was shirtless, and I vaguely wondered if he was more than that since he didn't seem to have expected me. I began to walk toward the bed.
"Don't," he barked shortly, and I stopped. When he continued his voice was softer. "Do not... feel obligated. Return to your room."
"'Obligated'?" I mused as I continued, soft footed, toward the bed. He looked like death in the light from the candle I carried, and I knew he hadn't been able to sleep before I'd come in. I was tired myself, and I didn't feel up to any verbal fencing. "I've gotten used to having you beside me while I sleep," I said truthfully.
Desire and hope flashed over his face, but he hid it quickly behind a guarded mask and pointed words. "I'm sure you can find someone else to help you with that."
"I have found someone," I responded easily as I set the candle on a table and sat on the side of the bed. "He is my alistair."
Zane sighed, laying back down. "If I wasn't half so tired, I'd make you regret those words."
"Is that a threat?" My heart seized for a moment, my eyes narrowing to focus on him sharply. But in the soul-deep weariness on his face I saw the man who had lain comfortable under my hands and been eased from his pain simply by my nearness.
His hand, lying on top of the blankets, balled into a fist. "Danica, I can't..." He took a deep breath and I thought he would try to explain further, but he only murmured again, "I can't."
I sighed in my own turn as I blew out the candle and slipped under the blankets, beside him. I reached out hesitantly and laid my hand against his shoulder in the darkness. I remembered Irene's words, but I was impatient with the way he continued to pull away from me. "I know what I'm doing here. Maybe I'm not serpiente, but don't treat me like I'm an idiot."
I felt him trembling under my fingers, and then suddenly he was on me. He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me close against him so that we were pressed torso to torso. His legs tangled with mine and his breath was hot on my face. "Danica," he murmured. His hands slipped under my nightshirt to press against the skin of my back.
I responded with a throaty moan, my body arching into his touch. My breath caught and I could not tell if it was with desire or fear. This was nothing I had ever experienced before but apparently my body was not entirely averse to the idea, and that was even before his lips closed over mine. My blood was racing, my heart pounding, and I trembled as my lips tasted his.
He sighed with regret as he stopped kissing me to rest his forehead against mine, but it was an oddly joyful regret. "I am truly exhausted." His mouth hovered over mine. "Tomorrow night, you will not get off so easily should you come to my bed."
I knew his words were both truth and jest– that he would not force me, but that I should not push him faster than I was comfortable going, and he was far more sensitive than I was on that slope. I did not fear him, but I had truly come tonight only to comfort his weariness and the idea of such intimacy, with anyone, made my heart continue to flutter madly and attempt to take flight straight up out of my mouth.
I pressed my fingers to his lips. "I will remember that," I promised. "Now, sleep."
I'd thought he might pull away to lie beside me, as we had slept all the nights before. Instead he tangled his limbs more firmly with mine and laid his head on my stomach. I smiled in irony at the darkness and stroked my fingers tentatively through the disheveled hair of my sleeping alistair. It took me some time to relax enough to sleep, but, as I had told Zane, I knew what I was doing there, and my choice sat well with me.
Morning came all too quickly, heralded not by the sun, as I was used to, but by my body's recognition of the sun's existence. I knew the sun was coming up, even if I couldn't see it, and my wings ached to feel that light on my feathers. My rest had been haunted by dreams– It had been the day my father died, lured out of the Keep by a false message from his sister and into a trap that had killed them both. In my dream, Zane laughed at me for being naive, before his expression became a mask which he removed to reveal Vasili underneath.
Zane still slept, wrapped around me. His presence was an odd counterpoint to my dreams, and I shivered. I managed to extricate myself without waking him. I made my way to my adjoining room. I knew there was clean clothing there for me, and I felt in need of washing if I could find a basin. Entering the room, I remembered that one of the other doors lead to a bathing room. I explored it eagerly.
It was some time later when I returned to Zane's room to see if he had awakened yet. He seemed to be asleep, but he responded quickly when I began to brush the hair back from his face. His eyes opened and fastened on me, shining red and almost gold in the light of my candle. "Danica." His voice was rich and silky and a part of me responded with an eager breathlessness.
Instead of brushing his hair back, I tousled it over his face. "Get up. We have things to do today." I turned my back on him and returned to my room to finish dressing.
The sound of his laughter drifted after me and I heard him rise and start to dress. As I finished getting ready for the day, I was vaguely surprised that he didn't appear and offer to help. My thoughts were turned to his room, so when I heard the thud of furniture being overturned I knew immediately that something was very wrong.
I was on my feet and in Zane's room in an instant. I didn't see him at first, and my eyes searched the room for a frozen moment. He was lying on the floor, half hidden behind the bed, another figure crouched over him and they were struggling. In the moment I saw them, he managed to throw her off. As she briefly flailed for balance the light glinted along the blades of the dirks she carried. Zane had rolled away from her and into a defensive crouch. He called in warning, "Danica!"
His voice was loud enough to have reached the next room; he hadn't seen me yet. The assassin looked at me, however, her eyes flashing red in the candlelight. She bared her ivory fangs at me in annoyance and focused on her target again, throwing herself at Zane.
I opened my mouth and would have been surprised at the sound that came out if I had taken time to think. I screamed out a high, fierce cry and threw myself at the assassin. In my shifted form I was more fragile, but I was smaller and faster. Talons reached for her flesh and sank in as wings buffeted her head. She retreated from her target with her own loud cry, this one of pain. I had enough presence of mind to separate from her before she could grab hold of me; as I released, her knife struck out at me and, passing beneath me, caught the edge of my tail-feathers, slicing seamlessly through feather-tips. The assassin threw a small pouch of powder that seemed to explode and fill the room. My flight unbalanced and I flapped my wings wildly. One wing grazed a wall and, suddenly aware of the confines in which I operated, I fought off panic.
I managed to land on the ground and stood there for a moment panting to catch my breath, which was more difficult to do than I would have thought after only light exertion. The Ichneumon was gone but I could feel eyes upon me. I turned to find Zane staring at me. His eyes were wide, and he was utterly still. I feared wildly that the Ichneumon had managed to strike him with her poisoned knife, and I shifted quickly and reached for him. He flinched from my touch and I drew back.
I became aware that there were other people in the room. Rei was at my shoulder; his expression was worried, but when he realized he'd finally caught my attention he relaxed. "Are you hurt?"
I shook my head. "Just lost some feathers." Adelina was standing by the door, staring at me. I could hear a voice shouting for Karl and supposed someone must be trying to follow the assassin. Ailbhe was standing beside Zane, who was also insisting he was uninjured though his voice was weak. Zane wouldn't look at me; neither would Ailbhe. Everything felt strange and I wondered if I had abruptly gone insane or if it was everyone else.
I turned to Rei, reaching for him to help me stand. I stumbled; my head was whirling. I saw Ailbhe flinch from me, and I realized suddenly that they were all afraid of me. I met Adelina's eyes across the room. She was the only one beside Rei who would look at me; I realized she was standing by the door to prevent more people from entering.
"We were attacked," I mumbled to Rei.
His hand was a sure comfort on my arm. "I know. We saw her. Erica and Karl are searching. We will find her." He paused. "Are you sure she didn't get you?"
I shook my head, but I honestly did not feel well. Had she poisoned me and I hadn't noticed? I was also confused– what did he mean, Erica? Erica was gone, on leave. Rei lead me out of the room, to my own side room, and helped me to sit on the bed.
"What's wrong?" he asked softly.
I noticed my hand was still holding onto his arm tightly. "My head... I can't think..." I leaned on him. "He is scared of me."
Rei answered me with a brief silence. "You were impressive," he admitted.
"Have I..." I stopped. "I ruined everything."
"No." Rei frowned. "Zane is made of sterner stuff than that." He touched my face, brushing away some of the dust from the cloud that had covered the assassin's escape. He examined it carefully, rubbing it between his fingers, and his frown deepened. "Theodore," he called to the guard standing in the doorway. "Would you stay here with Danica?" The serpiente looked at him warily but nodded.
"Danica," Rei said to me carefully. "There is poison in this dust. I need to tell Adelina. Stay here." The last was a command and I responded to the familiarity of his voice even through the mess in my head. "I will send for Betsy, okay?"
I nodded absently, and heard him speaking with Theodore, but I stopped caring enough to pay attention. My head hurt more than ever, and I decided that I just wanted to go back to sleep. I moaned and buried my face in the bedsheets. I felt a hand on my back as Theodore offered comfort, but he felt far away, and I did not respond.
Chapter 8: (Interlude: Ailbhe)
The night is quiet as Ailbhe takes his turn at watch. After a long day of travel and the flighty ways of birds he slept well earlier and is looking forward now to an easy dawn watch.
He should have known better.
A shape walks out of the predawn light, moving silently toward him. He tenses before he recognizes Erica Silvermead. She had not returned to the palace with them yesterday. He thinks he remembers that her father died the day before and she was granted leave.
He tries not to be an ass, but he can't help being suspicious. "You have returned quickly."
Bloodshot eyes meet his and he can certainly hear the disdain she manages to refrain from physically expressing. "My aunt and I are all that remain of my family. There was not much that needed to be arranged."
He hates it, but his heart goes to her. He knows what it is to lose friends and lovers to the implacable emptiness of death, and he can't imagine it being family that he might have lost. Can't imagine living in a world without Adelina, who has been a part of his life since they first kicked their mother's stomach in unison and curled their tiny fingers together in the womb. "You could take a longer leave," he says to her, gently, "take time to grieve."
In that moment he forgot to whom he spoke. Her eyes are like ice and she is but a shadow of a living creature as she stares at him, as if his suggestion is something so utterly foreign to her that she can't understand the meaning of his words. "I honor my father's memory by serving my Tuuli Thea. Not with useless tears and wailing."
Her facade is so convincing he believes it; believes the rumors that avians have no souls, calls aberrations the frustration and affection he has seen Danica express, and thinks his Diente a madman to have tied them in peace to such emotionless creatures. But he looks again into Erica's eyes and he thinks they are not bloodshot from staying up nights weaving flower chains.
Light is breaking full over them now, announcing the arrival of morning, and he moves aside to let her pass. She nods to him, grudgingly. She pauses, as if she might speak to him, but they are distracted.
A sound ripples up out of the ground toward them, faint but distinct. It is the shrill cry of a hunting hawk, and there is no need for words as Ailbhe and Erica together run toward the source with a deadly urgency. Erica silently cedes him the right to lead– he knows his way through the palace's twisting halls– but she is less than half a step behind him as they burst into the Diente's chambers. Andreios is already there; Ailbhe's sister was a step ahead of them all.
Zane is standing to the right of the door, holding a knife like he wishes it was a sword. All the serpiente are momentarily dumbstruck when they are slapped in the face with the fact that their Naga has feathers. She is all over golden brown, a blur of hard eyes and quick talons. In that frozen moment, they watch as she tears into a third party. Ailbhe sees the knife come up as the unknown moves to strike at Danica and he immediately thinks assassin. He involuntarily calls a warning. Andreios is already moving toward the combatants. The assassin catches a few feathers with her knife swing, but then the air is filled with smoke and the mental paralysis breaks. Ailbhe coughs roughly as he makes his way to Zane.
Ailbhe grasps his Diente's shoulder. "Are you hurt?" Zane shakes his head, but he is not himself, his eyes unfocused and his mien confused as he leans against the wall. His skin is gray in places, as if smeared with soot. Ailbhe glances over his shoulder; Andreios is beside Danica, helping her to her feet. Her face is gray like Zane's, but her eyes are pure and golden and Ailbhe shivers. She is like the sun, a thing of warmth and gold that can turn quickly and burn you with talons of fire. She looks dazed, and Andreios is guiding her out of the room. Ailbhe feels a bit dazed himself.
Erica's return distracts him. She bursts from a doorway into a side passage, and it takes Ailbhe a moment to remember that he doesn't have to kill her, and another moment after that to remember why. He realizes that she had given chase to the assassin. She shakes her head at the wordless query directed her way. "Karl and Kyler are organizing a thorough search, but she got away from me."
"And why wouldn't she?" Adelina hisses. "You brought it here with you, didn't you?"
Erica stops short as if struck by the accusation. Her eyes narrow as she takes in Adelina's words. "How did she find her way through that mess of tunnels?" Erica hisses back. "Someone told her, and it was someone who knows them well." The two of them step closer, about to come to blows.
Ailbhe isn't sure if he should stay with Zane or go help his sister. In a shadow that passes over his eyes he sees his fear take place, Adelina dead by the sparrow's blade. But his Diente's hand is holding onto his arm and Ailbhe knows that it is just a shadow.
Zane is watching his captain as she faces down the sparrow. His pupils are wide, oddly so, Ailbhe notices, garnet almost hidden by the black. "Enough," Zane says, his voice firm. Adelina and Erica both fall silent, but their eyes do not leave each other. Zane grips Ailbhe's arm tightly, as if to ground himself, and Ailbhe is growing more worried, the fear licking up through his veins. "Something is wrong," Zane says, shivering. "No one do anything until I figure out what it is. Danica?"
"Andreios took her into the other room," Ailbhe tells him, and his Diente's eyes flash with red.
"I do not want him alone with her," he hisses.
Ailbhe's eyes narrow. He personally doesn't want either of the avians back in this room, but he thinks he will send Erica to them. That will solve two problems.
The decision is taken out of his hands when Andreios reappears. He is holding his hand out before him, his fingers smeared with the gray dust. His eyes focus on Erica first, as if he sees something in her that frightens him. He looks away from her and divides his attention between Zane and Adelina. "Your assassin's smoke bomb was filled with poison. I suggest we leave this room; it is still in the air."
"Poison?" Adelina asks suspiciously. She glances at Zane.
Andreios frowns. "It does not appear to be deadly. At least..." He trails off and shrugs. Erica goes to him and examines his dusty fingers. Ailbhe rather hopes it isn't deadly; he's pretty sure he remembers inhaling a lungful of the stuff. He thinks; after Danica and Zane, he and Andreios were the closest to the dust.
Zane is glaring, at the floor angrily, but he nods. "I do not feel well, though I also do not feel like I shall be expiring any time soon." Ailbhe notices that Zane is carefully not looking at any of the avians. His grip on Ailbhe's arm is painful and Ailbhe holds his Diente's arm tightly in response.
"I have seen this before," Erica says, reluctantly, looking up from where she is examining the crow's hand. "Andreios is correct, it is not deadly, to either avians or serpiente. The dust enhances emotions of fear and paranoia. It helps to cover the Ichneumon's escape. He's right also that we should leave this room, breathe fresh air. And anyone who can see it on their skin should bathe."
"How can you know all that?" Adelina asks, her suspicion focused back on the sparrow.
Erica looks at her pointedly before she shrugs uncomfortably. "I misspoke. I have not seen this before, I have heard Messua speak of it. She is a member of Raven Flight and spent some time..." She trails off and looks around, even more discomfited. "With a traveler from the east, where this type of attack is common," she finishes.
They all eye each other, watching for the slightest hint of weakness. It was crazy to let avians in this close, Ailbhe thinks, and he knows he and Adelina can take them, can protect their own. The rational part of his mind manages to point out that, not too long ago, he and his sister did not belong here either, and he tries to reach for that rationality, even as he presses Zane back behind him, the better to defend him, and gives himself more room to attack Erica.
"No." Zane's grip on his arm is implacable, and Ailbhe listens as his king issues orders. "Adelina, find Irene and Charis. If these assassins can get into the palace, get them out. Take them somewhere safe."
Adelina nods, but her eyes linger on the doorway, through which lies their Naga. Andreios steps between her and the path to Danica. "My people will see to Danica."
Zane hisses, and all eyes in the room turn to him, reflexively. Zane lifts his gaze from the ground and glares at the avians, a full killing rage behind his red eyes. Erica makes an involuntary sound of fear, deep in her throat, and even Ailbhe finds himself paralyzed by his king's gaze. The focus of those garnet eyes is Andreios, and the crow stares back, caught, his face blank and empty of emotion. His body forgets to breathe and Ailbhe sees him fall bound into those red pools of blood and hatred.
After what seems like an eternity but must have been just moments, Zane manages to tear his gaze away, closing his eyes and burying his face in Ailbhe's shoulder. His fingers are still like bands of steel around Ailbhe's forearm; the viper raises his other arm to wrap it around his Diente's shoulders, shielding him from the room.
"Andreios." Zane's voice is muffled against Ailbhe's shoulder, but the room is still silent. "Get Danica somewhere safe. I don't care if you have to take her back to your Keep, keep her safe."
The crow is unsteady on his feet after his ordeal, but he says, "I will protect her." There is something in his eyes that Ailbhe likes, and the crow continues, "I won't let these Ichneumon ruin her dream."
Zane breathes easier for a moment, and nods. Andreios turns and goes back to Danica. Adelina is out the door, giving orders, departing on her errand to protect the other Cobriana. Ailbhe, remembering what the sparrow said, pulls his Diente into another room, away from the poisoned dust that still lingers in the air. He calls for a wet cloth and carefully washes the grey dust from Zane's face. There are voices behind him, demanding to know what is going on. He tries to ignore them, but with the constant chattering it is difficult.
"It was the Ichneumon," Zane tells them finally. "One found a way into the palace." Fear and denial run apace through the listeners, the chattering louder.
Ailbhe holds up his hand for silence. "The Ichneumon was here, that is a fact, though we do not know yet how it came to be." There are grumblings about birds and the placing of blame, but Ailbhe demands silence again with a sweeping arm and tells them, "Your Naga Danica Shardae herself attacked the Ichneumon when it would have come for Zane. Do not speak lies about those who are now your comrades and do your jobs! We must make sure there are no more of the assassins in the palace. Go." He disperses them with a wave and turns back to Zane.
Zane is watching him, though his gaze is distant, his thoughts far away. He snaps back to himself as Ailbhe turns his head, examining him for more of the dust. "You believe Erica?" he asks softly.
Ailbhe shrugs. "The poison does not seem to be fatal and it is true that the Ichneumon knows the palace very well, to have penetrated even into your quarters. But Adelina is also right– we would not be having trouble with the Ichneumon at all if not for the avians bringing them here."
Zane laughs darkly. His thoughts quickly turn to other things and he sighs, a sound of deep weariness that is at odds with the sun just rising. He seems hesitant to speak, but Ailbhe stands before his king and waits patiently.
"Do you think," Zane begins. He rubs his eyes with the heels of his hands and when he continues the question is a statement. "It will not matter what understanding Danica and I come to. If the rest of the world is intent upon death, peace cannot last."
Ailbhe weighs his response. He knows his sister's heartbreak. He knows the truth of the ruse of love that Danica and Zane have concocted for the rest of the world to see; but he has also seen them both, together and apart, breathe and bleed for the idea of peace. He has seen that avians are people as serpiente are people. He remembers– always– the chance that Charis gave to himself and to his sister.
"Peace is not a thing that happens," Ailbhe says. "It is a thing you make." He offers his hand to his Diente and Zane grasps his forearm, Ailbhe pulling him to his feet. "You fight for it, like you would for anything else you desire."
Zane nods. There is something easier in his face now; an empty place at his side filled for the moment by a faint hope restored. Ailbhe follows his Diente as Zane returns to his people.
Chapter 9: Chapter 9
I opened my eyes to golden afternoon sunlight and wondered where I was. I was looking up at a woven ceiling and I could feel people moving near me, though I could not yet see anyone. The feeling filled me that something important was missing from me, but a subtle lassitude stilled my bones and I couldn't decide whether what was missing was important enough for me to push past that and fully awaken.
The voice was familiar.
"I think she's waking up."
"Galen, get your Naga something to drink."
The voices and the words were all familiar and I remembered what I was missing.
"Zane." I sat up swiftly.
My head protested the move immediately, and I felt I might pass out again. Betsy held me still. "He is well," she assured me. "Now, drink this or I will tell you nothing else." Her voice was especially stern, so I knew that I was not badly injured. I did fear for the news she would give me though. A serpiente I recognized as Irene's mate handed a cup to Betsy, who pressed it to my lips.
I murmured my thanks and drank deeply. My head having settled, my eyes roamed around the room in which I found myself. I was certain by the architecture that surrounded me that I was no longer in the Palace, but this did not look anything like the Keep. Plus, there were far too many serpiente around for the latter to be the case. In addition to the serpiente guards I recognized Alice, Erica, Eleanor, and Betsy were sitting or standing around me. The serpiente woman sitting to my left I remembered was A'isha, the woman who had approached Zane in the synkal the day we had arrived. I believed that was yesterday, unless I had slept longer than I thought.
I finished the cup and gripped Betsy's hands. "Tell me."
"What do you remember?" she countered.
"We were in Zane's room and we were attacked by one of the Ichneumon," I said impatiently. "You said Zane was not hurt. Tell me what has happened. Tell me where I am." I was Tuuli Thea in those words, not Danica, though it would not matter to Betsy.
"You are in sha'Mehay," A'isha answered me. "The dancers' nest. Andreios and Adelina agreed that it was the safest place to bring you all, and, given the circumstances, the dancers allowed it."
"Things are a little tense," Irene said, coming from behind to sit beside me. She smiled easily, though her expression was weary. "But no one was injured. Zane is fine. The guards were unable to capture the assassin. There has been some discussion as to how she escaped so easily, as well as to how she penetrated so deeply into the Palace, accompanied by a great deal of finger pointing." I nodded for her to go on and Irene continued. "There has also been widespread fear over the assassin's apparent ability to appear and disappear at will, accompanied by rumors that the Ichneumon truly cannot be killed. Zane is trying to keep people calm. Andreios and Adelina have been working together to direct the guards in doing sweeps of areas where people say they have seen the Ichneumon, but so far the assassin has not been found."
I took a deep breath. "It is not so bad," I murmured aloud. Irene raised an incredulous eyebrow at me. "No one is dead, and we are not again at war," I said to her. "Finger pointing and fearful people, I can deal with."
Irene laughed warmly, a tension easing in her face. "Danica, you are amazing. I must say it is Andreios' fault that most of what you fear did not come to pass." She glanced at the others around us.
Erica nodded. "Peace is still tentative; there were many who would have used this opportunity to break it."
"But it is also true that there were just as many voices raised in support of peace," Eleanor broke in. "Andreios' dedication to what he knew you wanted might have saved a lot of hassle, but don't believe he stood alone."
Erica nodded again, agreeing with Eleanor. "You are well loved, among all your people. When Andreios stood firm on peace, many agreed that it was what you would want."
A'isha grinned. "It is a well told tale even though it is less than a day old: how Danica Shardae placed herself between the assassin and the Diente and tore at the Ichneumon with claws of fire. Many serpiente are cautious about the appearance of the Ichneumon, but many also love their Naga deeply."
I blushed at her description and remembered the action she described as something that I had done without thought.
Eleanor was grinning too, and she stood from among us. "If you'll excuse me Tuuli Thea, I will tell them that you have awakened."
"Wait." I moved to rise as well. "I will go with you and tell them myself." Betsy mumbled something, but she made no overt protest and Erica and Alice pulled me to my feet.
Once there I wavered for a moment, my sense of balance non-existent and nausea overwhelming me. It took several minutes before the world stopped spinning around me. I did not trust myself to speak, but I looked at Betsy.
She took my face in her hands and tilted it from side to side, examining my eyes closely before she sighed. "I was afraid of this. When the assassin cut you, you got some of the poison in your blood. That mixed with the other agent, the disappearing dust she used, is going to give you a serious case of vertigo. It should fade within a day or two. Until then, you might not want to try walking anywhere, or looking at anything too quickly. And, needless to say, you're grounded until I personally clear you."
I had to swallow decisively against the nausea before I could answer. "I need to go out and see my people." I needed to see Zane, and Rei, and reinforce what they were doing on my behalf in front of my people.
Betsy nodded. I had been braced for an argument, and I was so surprised when none came that Erica and Alice had swept me up between them and carried me outside before I realized what was happening. A full unit of serpiente guards surrounded us, their eyes sharp as they scanned for threats and the nausea fought with pride and hope as all tried to fill me.
In the synkal, where I had first stood before the serpiente as their Naga, we found Zane. Eleanor had run ahead and announced our coming. He was looking for me as we entered the synkal; he looked tense and weary. As his eyes met mine, I saw something in him relax, even across the space that still remained between us. He ran across the synkal, avians and serpiente alike parting before him in waves, and lifted me up in his arms.
I wondered if his gesture was born of his own desires or of the pretense of wild love we had concocted for his people, but I could not deny that when his arms were around me my heart rested easily in my chest for the first time since I had woken. I turned my face into his shoulder and breathed in the closeness of him for a moment, before I slowly raised my eyes to his.
He was watching me carefully as he carried me to the dais. "I thought you were uninjured?" he said gruffly. "If you do not feel well, you should not have come out."
I smiled softly, closing my eyes. "It is some slight vertigo when I move too quickly," I explained. "Betsy says it is nothing to worry about; I should be as good as new in a day or two. Besides, I needed to see you," I said honestly.
I felt the muscles in his arms tighten around me for a moment. "To make sure your heroic stand wasn't wasted?" he asked sarcastically, voice low.
I frowned and reached up to touch my hand to his cheek. We had reached our destination and he halted, looking down at me. I was supremely aware of thousands of eyes upon us in that moment, but even more so I remembered the fearful looks of all the serpiente this morning, including Zane. He bore my touch easily enough now, but this morning he had flinched from my hand.
"I did not think," I admitted. "She had poison on her blade. I could not let her..." I could not finish the thought. His arms tightened around me again and we stood silently for several long moments.
I could hear the growing murmur of voices around us. I heard several avian voices raised in grumbling disapproval, and I blushed as I realized that Zane and I had been embracing for far longer than was seemly. The serpiente were ecstatic; many avians, not so. Arguments were breaking out across the area.
Zane set me on a chair that had been placed atop the dais and released me from his embrace. I wished to take his hand so that he would remain near me, but another wave of nausea swept me, and I gripped the arms of the chair, hard.
When I looked up again it was to see that Rei and Adelina had joined us. They acknowledged Zane before greeting me. Rei's "Tuuli Thea" I expected, but Adelina's bold and easy address of "Naga" caught me by surprise. I bowed my head in acknowledgment to hide it, but quickly addressed her, "Please, report what I have missed."
She nodded, though her stance shifted to include Zane. "The assassin remains elusive," she said concisely. "However, there are some other issues that require your attention, Diente and Naga." She turned to Rei.
He raised an eyebrow at her but smoothly took over. "Karashan has returned from settling the border dispute. It would be to the advantage of everyone if you formally recognized her, in addition to hearing her report." He nodded to Adelina.
"And Jacala and Kendrick have requested a formal audience with the Diente," she finished, "to discuss trading rights."
I tried not to clutch at the arms of my chair when I turned to look up at Zane. He frowned at me. "Danica is not well."
I shook my head, instantly regretting it. "No," I gritted out. "I need to do this. Out here in front of everyone. Though, by the sky, would you sit down?"
"You took my seat," Zane returned. His words were light, but his tone was even more so. He was resting his hand on the edge of the carved handle of the wooden chair and I focused my eyes there. I was distinctly unused to being dizzy every time I looked up, and that one part of him seemed to be staying motionless. I reached over, slowly, and lay my fingers over his. It was simply a request for him to not move his hand out of my eyeline, but I think I knew I lied even as I told myself that. There were parts of the morning's attack that I wasn't sure I remembered clearly. I wanted to speak to Zane about it, alone, but even as I thought so I knew I wouldn't have the courage to put words to the questions I wanted to ask.
Zane didn't move his hand. He stood steadily beside me as another chair was brought for him, and his fingers curled around mine as he moved to sit in it. Our connected hands lay over both the arms as if a bold statement of our nations' unity, and I felt a thrill of triumph and joy at the idea of it.
Karashan marched into the synkal with the military precision of an old soldier. She was flanked by two avians on one side and a pair of serpiente on the other. She bowed her head and then dropped to one knee before us. "Diente Zane Cobriana, alistair to the Tuuli Thea, and Tuuli Thea Danica Shardae, Naga," she addressed us. "I bring you a report of the demobilization." She stood and affected a parade rest stance as she gestured to her companions, who mirrored her stance. "I bring with me: Pamela, troop commander; Raksha, Strike Flight leader; Gidur, acting flight leader, and Chundra, acting troop commander."
I recognized Pamela then, remembering her from the night of the Naga ceremony. Strike Flight was a mixed flight, but I knew Raksha by sight as well. I assumed Gidur and Chundra had received field promotions to fill the positions previously held by Brenson and She're.
"As acting leaders, Gidur and Chundra's units have been tasked with the job of contacting other units and ensuring they are aware of the peace, as well as determining any specific unit's compatibility with the concept of peace. Any soldier seeming resistant to the new order has been re-tasked to high command. A complete restructuring of several flights and troops seems likely; Pamela and I have already submitted special reports and suggestions to Andreios and Adelina. Also, we have noted possible candidates for the formation of a mixed unit."
I blinked. It was... quite a bit to take in. I wanted to ask what Karashan thought these new units were going to do, seeing as there was no longer a war going on, but I found that my warriors were a step ahead of me.
"I have had Raven Flight working with select members of Strike Flight and acting leader Gidur's Flight to provide us with a map of your newly combined territories. They are working at present on a rough aerial outline, to be filled in more precisely later with detailed information gathered via ground surveillance. Pamela and I have been redirecting suitable units from the demilitarized lines to these areas."
Zane nodded. He acted as if he was aware of what Karashan was talking about, but if this was her first time reporting I thought it more likely that he was just a better actor than I was at the moment. Zane's fingers tightened around mine. I closed my eyes for a moment as I replied. "We should appoint a separate party to oversee the mapping, while Karashan and Pamela finish reassigning troops."
Zane smiled. "By coincidence, I believe Chundra has an interest in that area. Acting Commander?"
Chundra stepped forward, bowing her head to us. "Yes, Diente. I have trained with the Disa in cartography. I would gladly undertake this task of mapping your territory."
Zane looked at me and I nodded my agreement. "Then Chundra, consider your promotion to Commander as permanent," he said. "Your unit will consist of serpiente and avians, to be assigned as their talents determine."
I gave another small nod and added, "Karashan, please let me know if you are aware of any avians with an interest in cartography."
"Tuuli Thea," she bowed. "As it happens my own Messua of Raven Flight has expressed a desire for permanent transfer."
I grinned. "Excellent. She will work under Commander Chundra."
The crowd around us had been rumbling throughout the discussion, but at this point I heard Karl, behind me, shift his feet as if he meant to step forward and speak. With the one matter finished my attention was quickly called to another and I forgot about Karl.
Jacala and Kendrick were serpiente merchants whose concern was over avians moving in and setting up stalls in the synkal.
"There isn't room for them," Kendrick was protesting. "The stalls are already crammed up to the wall of the palace. And–" I felt his next protest was going to be something along the lines of they don't belong here, but he changed his words to, "Their wares overlap too much with what is already being sold. They are taking the market sales that should already be ours."
"Kendrick," Zane's voice was hard. "The war is over. There is no 'ours.' There is only all of us together."
"I don't mind it so much," Jacala broke in, as if attempting to distance himself from his fellow petitioner, "but I'm a bit worried to venture into avian markets myself, this early in the ceasefire. Begging your pardon my Naga, but if something happens with the peace, then the avians can fly away; if I get caught in an avian market and hostilities break out, I'm stuck there. And I'm just not so sure of them, begging your pardon again, but do you have them out in the open, up in the air? I just don't know. If we could get some assurances, then I'd feel safer." He ducked his head nervously; I could tell from his manner that, despite his need to have himself be heard, he didn't like being the center of attention.
Zane frowned. "I can give you no more assurance of peace than by myself and Danica both declaring it so."
I squeezed Zane's hand. "I believe I understand your fears, Jacala. This is not about people you have previously been at war with; this is about biological inclination. I myself am a creature of the open sky, but I can see how it would be a place of fear for others." Jacala nodded, and I smiled. "If I may, Eleanor?"
Eleanor stepped out from the crowd. "Tuuli Thea?"
"Among my people, you are an avian I know has long been sympathetic with the serpiente and has traveled between our courts often. I wonder if you could perhaps comfort some of Jacala's fears, and describe to him the marketplaces and the court of the Keep?"
Eleanor smiled. "Tuuli Thea, it would be a great honor to assist another artisan in any way."
Jacala seemed pleased, but Kendrick frowned. "There's not enough space in the synkal," he groused again, as if Zane hadn't heard him the first time.
Zane raised an eyebrow. "You are most welcome to explore merchant options in new places. Your Naga assures your safety."
Kendrick did not look pleased but bowed his head.
The afternoon was well worn, and Zane stood decisively, offering me his hand. "Danica is not fully recovered from the injures she took in my defense. We will retire for the day. If you still have concerns, please report them to Kyler, who will organize a hearing for tomorrow." He turned to me, "Do you have any words for your people at the Keep?"
I had not even though of my mother once since I had wakened. I motioned to Alice. "Please tell my mother that Zane and I are well, if she has not already been informed. Also, Karashan, as soon as you are not busy elsewhere, please return to the Keep and begin the assessment of the guards there." I needed to return home soon, and I would truly appreciate it if I wouldn't have to worry about protecting Zane from my own people when I did. "If you feel you will need to, please take Andreios with you." Karashan nodded. I met Rei's eyes. "Thank you," was all I could say to him, but I hoped that he understood all the meaning I was attempting to pack into those two words.
Rei nodded. "I do my duty, Tuuli Thea." And just as I despaired that he had not understood, he smiled.
I smiled back and turned to Zane. I meant to lean on him until I gained my feet and then hobble back to our room, maybe with my eyes closed the entire way, but he leaned over and swept me up into his arms and carried me back across the synkal. My hand clutched at his shirt and my heart thudded in my ears. I wasn't sure if it was the nausea or the suddenness of his movements that made my throat feel tight. I pushed past it to ask, "Aren't we going inside?"
"Our room is still something of a mess at the moment," Zane replied. "And it's not safe in the Palace. You are staying at sha'Mehay."
My grip loosened in his shirt and my fingers curled around the fabric, resting against his chest. I could feel his heart beating. "Are you staying there with me?" It came out more of a question than I intended. I wanted to tell him that he would stay with me, but I also remembered how this morning's encounter had ended, and the fear on his face.
He paused for a moment before he resumed walking, and I pulled my hand away. He had never seen me transformed before. I remembered the fear that had filled me when I had truly seen him for the first time, black, dusty coils dancing across the floor. I shivered.
"Yes," he answered, a catch in his voice. "I will stay with you." He sighed and stopped walking. "Danica." He looked at me and I met his gaze. He looked as if he would speak but shook his head instead. "We can talk inside."
He carried me through the door of the nest. Some of the dancers were practicing; Irene and Galen were sitting in a corner relaxing against each other. When they saw us, everyone came over with questions, not fazed at all by Erica at Zane's shoulder; I hadn't even noticed she'd followed us from the synkal until she stepped forward now to ward off the curious.
"We are rather exhausted at the moment," Zane said to them. "If you please–"
A'isha rescued us, leading Zane down to a room below the dancing floor. "Here you are. Some privacy, hmm?" She grinned knowingly and I closed my eyes so that I wouldn't have to see her seeing my blush.
Erica had followed us down, but at A'isha's words she held back. "I will be at the end of the hall," she said. "If you should have need of me." She drew herself up sternly.
"Thank you, Erica," Zane said. He carried me into the room, closing the door behind us, and set me down on the bed there. The light was soft, and I felt the nausea that had plagued me since waking ebb away. Zane hesitated for a moment, before leaning away from me. I reached out and ran my fingers through his hair. He turned into my touch until his lips were pressed to the palm of my hand. My heartbeat thrilled and my mouth parted slightly as I looked down at him. He reached up in his own turn and buried both of his hands in my hair. His finger deliberately found their way to the feathers at the nape of my neck and he stroked them as he watched me.
I could not tear my eyes from his. I do not think he was using any art to hold me transfixed; all that held me was my own desire. "This morning," I said, "You... when you looked at me. You were afraid of me." My voice was light and breathy, and I hardly recognized it.
He didn't answer at first. His fingers stopped moving, still buried in my hair and touching feathers. "I believe you know what that's like. You did it first." Zane also sounded breathless. He was staring at my lips, and he swayed toward me before he pulled himself back again. "I killed a man in front of you, and you took my hand without hesitation." His fingers started moving, caressing the back of my head. He swayed toward me again. "Danica Shardae, fair warning. I am going to kiss you now, and I am not going to stop."
I swallowed. "That's alright. I... I don't mind."
He leaned in, slow and resolute, and fixed his lips over mine. I relaxed into his touch, opening my mouth, my eyes falling shut. His hands were firm but gentle as he held me closer to him. His lips were cool, but they warmed my skin as they danced over my face. When he pulled away, I sighed. My hands came up and I touched his face, stroking fingers back through his hair. Zane pulled at the laces of my tunic, kissing me in the center of my chest as his hands slid up underneath my tunic to spread over my back. I arched into the feel of his kiss, one of my own hands sliding down the back of his shirt to gently stroke his skin. He moaned softly; rather than a sensual sound it reminded me of a wounded animal finding a place of rest.
I broke away and looked down at him, worried. Zane's bright eyes met mine easily and he smiled. "Danica," he murmured. He shifted fully onto the bed, pushing me back and straddling me. My heartbeat thrilled. He smiled down at me before kissing my lips again. His body pressed against mine fully, and he curled around me. His head rested on my chest, and I wondered if he was listening to the rapid beat of my heart as I had done with him earlier. I combed my fingers through his hair and leaned down to kiss the top of his head.
"Are you well, then?" Zane raised his head to look at me again. Slowly and deliberately he kissed my neck. The feel of his cool lips brushing over that sensitive skin made me murmur approvingly, and I wondered why he did so with such ceremony. In a flash I remembered how I had retreated in fear from a kiss of his in the same spot not two days ago.
"I am well," I said with some surprise. I was somewhat shocked that I had grown so easy with him so quickly. But... My fingers slipped through his hair to cup his face and raise it to mine. "I spoke true words that day," I murmured.
He grinned. "I knew it then." My gaze must have been questioning, for he took one of my hands and kissed the inside of my wrist. He let his fingers trace over the blue veins that ran under the skin. "I kissed you here, do you remember? You never pulled away from me when I did that." He sighed contentedly and rested his head on my chest again. "I knew it wasn't that you feared attack by exposing your vulnerability to me, but, as you had said, you had a flash image in your mind of me killing the hunter and you were sensitive to actions that would remind you of it."
I was amazed that he had known that even before I had consciously realized it. I stroked his bowed head again, brushing heavy black hair away from his face. "You have been very patient with me," I said after a moment. My hand stilled a moment, before sliding down, under his shirt.
He caught my hand and pulled it away from his body, holding it between his own and kissing it. "Danica, we serpiente are a passionate people, but do not confuse intimacy with a press for action." His face turned up to regard me seriously. "You have shared parts of yourself with me already that I never would have hoped for." He pressed my hand to his lips, and I could feel his warm breath against my fingers. "You are so open and warm now. Do not push for something else you are not ready for simply because you think that I cannot wait. It will come."
"I am ready," I insisted. He raised an eyebrow at me. "Perhaps not for everything," I admitted, "but to explore a bit more?" I cocked my head, asking if that was alright. I could feel my heartbeat racing; I hoped he didn't think I was afraid. I resisted the desire to pull away from him mentally and hide myself from his answer. I had pushed him hard enough in the past few moments that I wasn't sure where the slope lay and how far I could explore down it before falling. I did not fear him, and I felt safer and more comfortable lying beside him than I had since almost before I could remember. I held onto those thoughts as I looked up at him.
His pupils were wide as they looked at me and his breath caught. "Yes. I..." He released my hand and I placed it low against his chest, where his shirt opened. "That's alright," he murmured.
Chapter 10: (Interlude: Karl)
He slinks through the darkness. The lack of light is limiting to his senses and he does not like it, but he is meeting someone. Come darkness, come hell and high winds, they will not understand him letting anything hold him back.
What he plots together with them is something that cannot be accomplished if he is holding anything back.
In the chaos after the attempted assassination he managed to slip away. After slipping far enough, it was easy to fly the rest of the way here; he was the one who showed them the nest they chose to use. As he flies toward the crumbling ruin of a tower, he blesses the providence that lead to him finding it on his patrol. He would not want to look for them underground. Thankfully it still looks abandoned, and no other patrol has bothered with it.
He lands on the balcony of the tower. The Ichneumon are waiting for him in the darkness. Their camp is cold and fireless, but they are both present. Their red eyes are black in the night, but they still make him shudder. No good ever comes of red eyes, his mother would say. And she is right. But sometimes–
Sometimes the enemy of Karl's enemy makes a useful tool.
"What was she doing there?" Dewanee demands of him as she comes forward. "You said she would not be there."
Her older brother, Pheeal, gestures for her to be calm. "He has good reason, I am sure." The foreigner's expression is coolly blank, as if he could not possibly be incited to care what Karl's reasons are.
"They did not tell me where she was," Karl complains. "She was speaking with the other cobra, the sister." His audience's eyes flash in desire, and he continues quickly, unsettled. "They did not tell me when she had returned; they did not tell me she went to him." His eyes are hard on Dewanee. "You injured my queen. That was not part of our bargain."
She sneers at him. "You did not uphold your end of the bargain. Therefore, I am not required to uphold mine."
He moves as if to strike her, but Pheeal intervenes. "Softly, softly, children!" He pushes them apart and turns to Karl. "Your queen is not badly hurt. She will heal. Do they know that you had a hand in this?" Karl shakes his head. "Good, then we will have another chance." Pheeal sits down, urging the others to do so as well. "And your conspirator also remains unknown?"
Karl nods. "My helper was not exposed either. Our positions meant that we were able to help Dewanee escape, though we pretended to hunt her down."
Pheeal nods again, well pleased with this evening's work. He is the only one.
"It was a good hiding spot," Dewanee moans. "They will expect me if I come again by that tunnel. I will not get another such beautiful chance."
Pheeal looks at her sharply. "Then the hunt will be more glorious for the difficulty. You are young, sister. Do not make the mistake our cousin Tavi did. A cobra is a crafty and powerful foe."
"I would have had him," she protests, "but for the hawk." She glares at Karl as if her failure is his fault.
"Do not underestimate the cobra." Pheeal's eyes flash. "Perhaps we should start you on easier prey."
She turns to him eagerly, and Karl sits frozen between them for a moment before he remembers that his blood is not cold enough to interest them. He shifts, turning toward the balcony and the open window. "I must get back." They afford him not even a glance. He wonders if perhaps he has gotten in over his head. He doesn't understand them.
But that is what they are doing here, isn't it? To stop the abomination of this cohabitation before it begins. He would never think to live together with the Ichneumon, and he has not been at war with them for generations. This is what Danica has yet to see; they cannot exist together with those who are incomprehensible.
He has faith that she will see it. She has proven to be more dedicated to the choice she had made than he had thought she would be, but he has faith in her intelligence. He knows the reason she resists is only that she hasn't yet realized the beauty of the option he brings her. Perhaps it was Karashan's idea originally, but now he can't remember that. It is completely his idea, to bring these killers in to remove the impediment that stands in the way of their winning. To cut off the head of the serpent. And then they will win, and there will finally be the peace that Danica wants. He will give her that.
Danica is smart enough to know the truth. After all, isn't that the reason she's a hawk and a leader? They can never live together with these creatures of the ground. It is ridiculous. To kill serpiente is what he has been trained to do, all his life. Trusting them to honor peace? Alasdair would have been the first to council her descendant otherwise. They cannot trust a promise from a man who sheds his skin; he will turn again and will be their enemy before too long. War is all any of them have ever known. Avians cannot rest until their task is finished. Danica will realize that trying to change that will not change anything.
He leaves his assassin's camp and returns to his own battleground eagerly.
After all, he didn't enlist them to win this war all on their own.
Chapter 11: Chapter 11
I woke slowly, indolent. There was a heart beating under my ear and I smiled comfortably before my eyes opened. My dreams had been warm and easy, a rarity for me. A soft light leaked into the room from somewhere near the ceiling and I could easily recognize the room around me as the room from the dancer's nest where Zane and I had fallen asleep, even though it was not my usual resting place. From the light, I would say it was now the next morning.
I felt relaxed in a way I hadn't felt before. Dare I say it- I blushed even in the low light and with no one to see- I felt... replete. My fingers skimmed over Zane's skin where my hand rested against his chest and I raised my head to look at him.
Even sleeping deeply, he looked exhausted. I touched the back of his neck. The wound there was barely more than a slightly rough scar, but I knew from what Betsy had said that his body was still healing. Matters lately could not have helped that. He stirred as my hands danced over him. "Rest, Zane," I murmured soothingly. "I am here." I stroked the hair back from his face. "All is well. Rest a bit more."
He quieted, breathing deeply. The soft heat of his breath ghosted through the length of my hair where I leaned over him and a chill ran over my skin. I stroked my fingers through his hair for a moment more before my hand slid down over his face, along his neck, over the length of his collarbone and around his bare shoulder to follow the length of his arm down to where it crossed his stomach, his fingers curling against my hip. I paused to lay my fingers against the flat of his stomach. It rose and fell under my touch. My hand moved to mirror his, my fingers hooking in a proprietary curl around his hip.
My face was quite red, I was sure. For all that we'd done last night we hadn't truly known each other. Zane had taken at value my desire to not progress too quickly, but he had showed me also the joy to be had in simply touching. I thought I understood a bit better what it was like to be serpiente, to always have that contact, to feel everything so powerfully it must be expressed in the body. Only time would tell how I would be able to apply that knowledge to the world outside.
A soft knock at the door summoned me from my reverie. I went quickly to answer it, not wanting them to wake Zane. I was dressed in my pajamas, which covered my entire body. Apparently, Alice, my knocker, was expecting something more in the way of dishabille. She kept her eyes averted and would not even look at me. I put aside my desire to sigh and addressed her. "Yes?"
She shot a look of annoyance at a serpiente standing behind her. His appearance was familiar to me though I did not remember his name; I believed that he was a member of the Palace guard. "I would not have disturbed you Tuuli Thea, but Lungri insisted. He had a report he wishes to make to the Diente."
I met the serpiente's brilliant blue eyes levelly and said, with all the weight of being Tuuli Thea behind me and my voice no louder than a murmur, "Report then."
Lungri hesitated. "I would report to the Diente," he repeated.
"You will make this report to your Naga," I replied, "or you will not make it at all. And you will explain to me why you could not direct your concerns to Adelina or Andreios."
He hesitated. His gaze shifted to Alice for a moment, before returning to me. "I could not report to a lesser authority because I have reason to believe that the children of Maeve are in league with the Ichneumon."
I frowned. "Maeve?" The name was unfamiliar to me.
He blinked slowly. "The... the white vipers, Naga. Adeline, and her brother, Ailbhe."
I was certain I managed to hide most of my surprise from him, but I was truly shocked. "What basis have you for this accusation?"
He hesitated again. "Naga, everyone knows Maeve practiced dark sorcery. What other explanation for the Ichneumon's ability to appear even within the Palace?"
I sighed. To me, he wouldn't voice the true reasons Adelina could have for wishing Zane dead. "Why did you not come forward sooner?"
He shifted his feet. "I was unable to approach the Diente without Adelina being near or commanding me elsewhere. I was commanded to your watch this morning and I saw my opportunity."
I looked at Alice. I could see she was weighing Lungri's words and I asked her, "What do you think, Alice?"
"The Ichneumon knew of a passage into the deepest part of the Palace," she said, voice thoughtful. "There was no sorcery in her entering as she did. But that does not rule out Adelina as a source of that information."
I nodded. "Thank you. Now leave us."
They bowed their heads to me and returned to the end of the hallway, resuming their posts, where it appeared they had relieved Erica sometime in the night. I retreated behind the door to mine and Zane's room, leaning against it and sighing again.
Zane was sitting up in bed, looking at me. I looked back at him for a long moment, remembering how his eyes had darkened last night, his face close to mine, his lips upon my skin. He sensed the turn of my thoughts and his eyes flashed carmine in the dim room as his breath caught.
He rose from the bed and came to me. His movements were so fluid and intent they sent a thrill of adrenaline through me. He was dangerous and predatory as he closed with me, but I had ceased fearing what it was he sought. I leaned back and raised my face to him. His lips closed on mine with unexpected softness, and he kissed his way slowly along my jaw and underneath until his mouth was pressed to my throat. His lips thinned until the flat of his teeth was against my skin. Slowly, his jaws parted, and his tongue ran over me. I shivered with adrenaline rather than fear. I knew he appreciated kissing me in that spot because it represented my growing trust of him, but I thought he was developing quite a fixation.
Zane pulled back. "Danica. Do you believe him?"
It took me a moment to realize what he was talking about. "Lungri's report about Adelina?" He nodded. "I... I don't want to," I replied. "I can't believe it of her, but even as I want to deny it completely, I know it would be stupid to do so." I was curious, and it seemed a question he would know the answer to. "Zane, who is Maeve?"
He sighed and when he spoke it was as if by rote. "Long ago, when Egypt was young, thirteen men and women led a small society on the outskirts of civilization. They worshiped gods of balance, and their high priestess was Maeve. According to myth, a creature named Leben appeared to her and told her to stop worshiping Anhamirak and give her worship to him instead. He was very powerful, but Maeve knew he was no god. She seduced him, and to gain her favor he gave her ageless beauty and the second form of a viper with ivory scales. She demanded the same for all of her people." He paused. "One of them was a woman named Kiesha. To her Leben gave the form of a king cobra. From her line am I descended." He huffed out a short breath. "Or so the story goes."
I laid my hand on his arm wordlessly, and he continued.
"Anhamirak is the goddess of life and freedom; to balance her, Ahnmik is a god of power and stillness. Maeve was high priestess, worshiper of both, but... she fell to the lure of Ahnmik's magic and abandoned the balance she had once revered. The serpiente cast her out, and Kiesha rose to power. Maeve's kin have not been accepted among other serpiente, until Charis welcomed them."
My fingers were stroking along his arm, and he fell silent. I was thinking through everything he had said. "This is even older than what lay between us," I murmured, "though perhaps less bloody." And Adelina had loved him, despite generations of estrangement between her people and the rest of the serpiente. It was something worth killing me for. Was the betrayal of her love enough for her to betray him in turn, to the Ichneumon? "You may look like a Cobriana," I said to him, "but you are your mother's son, making peace where others think you are mad."
He pulled back and looked at me, a slow, surprised smile spreading over his face. "I am not alone. Many want peace. Even proud hawks." He sighed then, leaning against me tiredly. "I'm waiting for it to get a little easier," he murmured against the unruly tangle of my hair.
I took a deep breath and leaned forward to press a kiss to his collarbone. He inhaled sharply, leaning back to meet my eyes. I smiled. "It does get easier."
He cupped my chin with one hand and said, voice soft with wonder, "Danica." He leaned in again and this time his kiss was not soft.
He didn't get any more rest, but I felt he was slightly more fortified to face the day by the time we were done.
Everything was relatively calm for the next few days. My dizziness had gone completely, and Betsy cleared me for flight. There were no reported sightings of the Ichneumon, and no further incidents between avians and serpiente.
"No incidents that resulted in death" would have been a better classification. Arguments and fights were common, but the ones I witnessed were fortunately all mediated by a third party eager to point out that their Naga, or Tuuli Thea, was not far away. Emotions ran high and suspicion was rampant the longer the Ichneumon were not sighted. The one good point was that the suspicions was not directed at solely avians or serpiente; I saw groups of both mixing as they searched for the Ichneumon.
A common enemy made for interesting bedfellows, but the Ichneumon had not attacked a single avian, other than me. As the Ichneumon continued to make no further appearance, many avians lost interest in this new foe and focused back on their opponent of long-standing. Incidents rose, one even escalating to the point that I thought blood would be shed, but Rei and Theodore were able to break the opponents apart. Zane and I remained in the serpiente court for the time being, but I knew that we needed to return to the Hawk's Keep soon. I had much work to do there.
Only a few days after the attack Zane and I moved our room back into the Palace proper, though not back into Zane's old suite. I found myself missing the nest and I went down almost every morning to watch the dancers' practice. The raw emotion still made me blush more often than not, but I was captivated by the expression. Music was important to my people as well, and the dancing called to me. Having felt the passion that ran under Zane's skin and in his blood, I yearned to explore ways to express my own passions. I wasn't sure if I would still be welcome in the nest after the royal family had moved back to the Palace, but when I approached the door A'isha called me with a warm smile to join her on the stage and I had no doubts after that.
This morning as I slipped in to watch them, I saw A'isha was working on a dance I hadn't seen before. The raw sexuality of it took my breath away and I knew my face was red when she stopped to greet me.
"What is that dance called?" I asked.
She laughed. "That is Maeve's solo, from the Namir-da. The festival is approaching fast. It is likely I will perform in the forum, for those who cannot go to the festival in the synkal."
"Namir-da?" I asked. I had heard mention of the festival before but was eager to know more.
A'isha smiled, her long hair and skirts swirling around her as she repeated the first few steps of the dance. "It is the dance of Maeve's seduction of the creature Leben. We celebrate the origin of our people."
I shook my head in wonder. "It is beautiful."
Her smile grew calculating. "Would you learn it, little hawk? I would be honored to teach you."
"What?" A'isha had been showing me some simple dances, but the raw emotion and powerful sexuality of what I had just seen made the breath catch in my throat. I swallowed decisively. "There's no way I could dance that well so quickly."
She grinned as if she'd won something, and I realized that I had decried my abilities, not my willingness. I stood stiffly with my arms crossed and my cheeks aflame as A'isha laughed. "Do not worry, little hawk. There is no way you would be ready for this year's festival. So, we will practice with next year in mind, hmm?"
I nodded but had to swallow again before I could speak. "How is it decided who will dance in the synkal for the festival?"
She paused and looked at me. "Usually the Diente performs the dance before his people, with a partner he chooses. But a mated man does not perform the Namir-da with another, and you are not ready."
My embarrassment faded as I thought about what she hadn't said. That meant last year Zane had performed this dance of seduction with... "Adelina. He danced with Adelina."
A'isha nodded, but then continued as if I hadn't spoken. "There will be another performance here in the nest, as well as the larger celebrations in the synkal and around the forum. The more experienced dancers are placing bets as to whom I will choose."
I nodded, but I'd stopped listening. I was thinking about Adelina, and all she had lost with my arrival and the peace. Though they lingered in my mind, I had dismissed Lungri's warnings from the forefront of my thoughts and Zane and I had taken no action to reveal that we even had such doubts. But, truly, Adelina had reason to wish peace broken and me out of the way. I shook my head; was that really reason enough for her to help the Ichneumon kill Zane?
"Naga!" a serpiente standing near the door called. I heard another voice from outside the nest summon me as well, and I bade farewell to A'isha.
I was caught in my thoughts and I didn't realize it was Rei waiting for me outside until the young serpiente guard led me up to him. We had both been busy lately, his duties often taking him back to the Keep, and it felt like a long time since we had exchanged words as anything other than an official report. I smiled in pleasure to see him and grasped his hands with a familiarity that made him raise his eyebrow at me questioningly.
I sighed with a smile and released him. "It is good to see you." I thought he had come as part of my escort; Zane and I had been planning on returning to the Keep today, though it was early in the day yet for our departure. But I sobered quickly as I took in Rei's dark expression. "This is not good news you have summoned me to hear."
He shook his head. "We have a report of the Ichneumon killing some vipers near the eastern border."
I faltered. My smile was gone completely, and I felt as if my stomach had turned to a stone. "Killing? There have been deaths?"
He regarded me with sympathetic eyes. "Yes. It appears a young couple was attacked, and their child was killed as well."
I swayed on my feet. "Take me there," I commanded.
He hesitated. "Tuuli Thea…"
"Andreios, take me there."
He nodded. He made a gesture to the young serpiente who had brought me out. The guard nodded and ran off, slipping away quickly.
Rei and I were transformed and airborne in moments. The wind under my feathers felt good, but the purpose of our mission kept me from enjoying it. When we landed, I found a troop of serpiente and avians already at the site. They looked surprised to see us and all bowed to me, but I only had eyes for the still bodies.
I dropped to my knees beside them. It was like the fields all over again, and I felt myself falling under the same spell of hopelessness that had seized me then. I hadn't been able to stop this. I was never going to be able to stop this. Another child had died. I stroked short hair away from the pale face and closed dull green eyes. She hadn't been more than ten years old. I cradled the body in my arms, tears openly falling from my eyes.
"Danica!" Rei shouted my name with a forcefulness which told me that he had already said it a couple of times. I suddenly felt the pressure of his hand like a vice on my shoulder. "Danica," he called again, and this time my eyes focused on his face and I felt him relax. "It's not your fault Dani," he said. "You tried to stop this. You have stopped it, mostly." His hands were softer on my shoulders now. He looked up suddenly and then he was gone. I closed my eyes and bowed my head over the body of this poor dead child.
"Danica?" a different voice called me then, softly hesitant. I didn't look up, but the voice continued. "You sat with my brother, like this. You stopped him from being alone." There was a pause, and then my name again, slightly more desperate. "Danica?"
I blinked and looked up. Zane knelt before me, worried eyes on me. He gave a slight smile when I looked at him, but he knew the memories I was caught in better than I did, and he didn't reach for me. "Danica, it's done. We ended the war." He hesitated. "You cannot keep others from killing, Danica. You've done enough. You've saved so many lives, Danica."
I hardly heard his words, but the sound of his voice called me. "I'm sorry," I said. He looked worried, but I went on. "I promised myself that no more children would die while I was Tuuli Thea. No more."
"It's not your fault," he said again, desperately. "Danica, you cannot stop everyone from dying." He reached out instinctively but remembered who I was and pulled his hand back with a frustrated groan. "Danica, please. Don't carry this. It wasn't your fault."
I brushed my fingers over the small forehead again and bent to kiss the cold skin. I laid the still form on the grass and stood. I was dimly aware of Rei at my shoulder. Zane stood as well and stepped around the child's body to my other side. He was shaking with the need to comfort me and I leaned against him lightly. His arms came up around me, closing me in a tight embrace. His hands were in my hair, holding me urgently, and he was murmuring words I couldn't hear, his face pressed against me. I was crying into his shoulder, my hands grasping desperately at his shirt. It seemed a long while before there were no tears left in me, and I simply leaned against him, his arms tight around my shoulders. "Zane," I whispered.
He breathed a soft sigh, as if pleased I recognized him. "I am here, Danica." He guided me away from the dead. I could feel the weight of eyes on me as the avians and serpiente all watched me.
"I promised myself," I reminded him. It was a promise I had broken, and I hated myself for it.
He stopped and turned to me. He snatched my chin in his hand and forced my eyes to his. His fingers were like iron and I gasped at the wild anger in his eyes. "It is not your fault," he said, every word clipped and forceful. His eyes bore into me. The heat of that garnet gaze washed over me and I could feel the anger in him burning away my guilt. I had always borne my burden alone, knowing that there was no one who could understand. No one had the same responsibility that I had; no one cared as much as I did about the people I needed to protect. There was no one who understood how utterly useless this war was. But I could feel him now, burning with protective fire, enraged that these people had been hurt, that I had been hurt by this action. I could feel the dull throb of pain as his fingers gripped my face, but it was his eyes that truly held me, and I drowned in that fire.
He released me suddenly, an expression of horror on his face. "I'm sorry. I..." He pulled away.
I thought he might flee, but my fingers were still wrapped in his shirt. I pulled him closer. "Tell me again."
He tried to step away again. "Danica." He hesitated before continuing, his voice filled with self-loathing, "I promised. I promised I would never raise my hand to you, Danica. I'm sorry. I..." But I could see he had no words for how much he was repulsed by what he had done.
My cheek throbbed. It was definite that I was going to end up with a bruise there. He was about to tear his shirt to escape my hold and I fisted my hands in the hair at the back of his head, forcing him to look at me. "Alistair," I named him. "You swore to protect me." I leaned my forehead against his. "Sometimes you must protect me even from myself." He stilled under my hands and I closed my eyes. We were so close I could feel the way his rapid breaths mingled with mine. "Now," I repeated, "tell me again."
He drew in a deep, shuddering breath. "It is not your fault."
I hummed softly, his words sinking into me, the brilliance and fire of his eyes all I could see behind my closed eyelids. "Zane," I said. He flinched. I opened my eyes. His were closed and he was turned away from me as much as he could with my arms around his head. I kissed his forehead. "It is not your fault, Zane." He made a soft, pained noise in the back of his throat. "I was flying into the sun and I needed you to ground me. You helped me find my way back." I held him tightly with one hand but released the other one enough to reach down and stroke his cheek. Finally, he looked at me, his eyes dark with pain. I smiled at him. "We still have some work to do," I said. "But it's getting easier."
He laughed then. It was a loud, half-panicked expulsion of sound, but he relaxed enough that I dared to release him. We stood there, our foreheads leaning against each other but not touching elsewhere, for long moments. I breathed his breath and felt peace stealing over me.
"Well," Zane said eventually. "We are definitely not going back to the Keep today."
I smiled, feeling the way it pulled at the bruises on my cheek. "Rei," I called.
He was not far, as I knew he would be. "Did we make too much of a scene?" I asked him.
Rei's smile was sardonic. "The serpiente loved it," he replied. I rolled my eyes, knowing I was red-faced. "And even your avian solders were moved by the depth of your compassion for the fallen," Rei continued. "There has been some discussion. The dead have no family remaining. The consensus of the troop is that we conduct the funeral here, now. They would be honored if you chose to remain."
Zane reached for my hand, twining his fingers with mine. "Of course, we will." I nodded.
Rei bowed and turned back to the troop. Some had already been gathering wood for the pyre and others were cutting the circle, stripping the vegetation so that the fire wouldn't spread. I carried the body of the child myself and laid it on the pyre, kissing her forehead one last time. I stepped back and into Zane's embrace, and we stood there long into the night, with the entire troop of avians and serpiente together keeping silent vigil, until the flames had carried the spirits into the next world and the last of the embers had died.
Chapter 12: (Interlude: Erica)
When she soars high above the ground, dancing on currents of air, Erica can see the entire world. It is a feeling that she cannot describe. It reminds her of power, and it makes her feel small.
She came ahead by wing to the Hawk's Keep as the Tuuli Thea travels by ground with her alistair and makes her own way back to her home. The Keep bustles with energy and anticipation. The people are eager to welcome their queen back from her stay in lands that remain foreign and strange to many. There is talk of the assassins. They injured the Tuuli Thea, even though they came for the cobra. There is talk of the Tuuli Thea's emotional display at the site of the assassins' kill. Some are disturbed by this, saying the serpiente are making their queen undignified. Some remember that this is not new behavior; they remember the day of her brother's death, when she sat beside Gregory Cobriana and sang to their enemy so that he would not die alone.
Erica sits now, a sparrow tucked between high stones in a corner of the market. Her small transformed body goes unnoticed and she watches. Merchants peddle their wares, customers buy what catches their eyes, and everywhere avians trade gossip. Erica is stillness amid chaos, and she holds that balance within her. It is a dichotomy that reflects her thoughts all too well.
There are serpiente in the market at the Keep. They sell their wares, like any other merchants– or attempt to. Erica has been watching them, and their success is spotty at best. Many avians treat them as if they are invisible. There are seven of them in total; Erica has kept careful count. She watches who they talk to and who stops to talk to them. She pays attention to what kinds of wares they offer.
Eleanor Lyssia visits each of them and buys something, spending long moments talking openly, a smile on her face. She holds her head with a determined tilt that dares anyone to comment on her behavior. She looks as though she wants to stay there all day with the serpiente, trying to prove truth by force. It is not unlike the more aggressive forms of proving Right by force of arms that Erica has seen before, but she admires Eleanor for it more than she has others. Eventually, Lyssia must go and see to her own livelihood and she leaves them.
Eleanor is not the serpiente's only customer. A crow named Akela stops as well; he is an old friend of Erica's father. It is surreal to see him now, speaking easily with former enemies. Erica has memories of Brenson and Akela talking long into the night and grinning to each other about battles past and kills made. Now, Akela stops half the morning with one of the serpiente merchants, discussing wine.
And others approach the merchants. A pair of young soldiers laugh too loudly, giddy with pent up nerves as they stop to converse with serpiente they would have met eyes with only over crossed blades not even a month ago. Some customers make purchases. The morning is not wasted. But, overall, it is a slow, hot day and boredom makes tempers short.
Erica sees it all coming before it happens.
One of the serpiente merchants is a young man. He offers a passing young avian woman a necklace. She turns away demurely, covering a blush with both of her hands. The serpiente grins; he leans closer to her and–
Erica does not hear what he says, but the avian man standing behind the young woman does. Erica thinks he is probably the young woman's father. Erica watches as his face grows red and his voice rings out in outrage. In less than a moment, the market is silent, dozens of avian eyes fixed on the serpiente.
The young serpiente merchant appears confused. He spreads his hands. "I did not mean any offense," he says, obviously not knowing what he has done that has caused offense. "It is a compliment to the lady."
Erica realizes she can hear his words because she has moved closer. A part of her holds her breath, as does the rest of the market.
"You dare speak to my daughter," the avian man is saying, "as if she was one of your loose women! You accost her in this way!"
The serpiente draws back, shocked. "I would never–"
But his words are lost beneath the avian man's outrage. "Is it not bad enough that we are at peace with these creatures, now we cannot even walk down our own streets without having them come after our daughters!"
He is obviously seeking the approval of the crowd. There are a few faces that agree with him, but none of them speak, just yet. Others shift uneasily. "The Tuuli Thea will be back soon," a voice says. "If you have a problem, you should take it to her." There is a general murmur of agreement. Many people take to wing and make their way home, realizing what is happening and wanting no part of it. Many others stay. They want no part, but they cannot tear themselves away. Erica is tense with anticipation. She wonders how this will end, which way the scale will tip.
Erica hates in a way that other avians do not understand. There is a level of her, a facade, that despises the serpiente as much as any avian who ever spread wings under this sky, but there is a deeper part of her which burns with an unrelenting anger, and which knows, in a way that makes her angrier still, that Danica's peace is doomed to failure. It is a thing ordained by higher powers, ancient natures, and deeper hatreds. Things that cannot be altered.
The avian man's few supporters drift through the crowd, gathering behind him. His daughter flutters her hands in a desperate, useless attempt to divert him; she runs off when she cannot dissuade him. He steps toward the serpiente purposefully.
The young merchant backs away. His hands are spread in a placating gesture, but there is a flash in his eyes and a hint of fang at his lip. He does not seek this conflict, but he will not submit meekly. The other serpiente merchants gather behind him. Between then, there is enough poison to kill all their opponents. One of the avians has pulled a bow from somewhere; several of the others have blades.
"Your Tuuli Thea returns to her Keep today," a different voice rings out over the market. Erica recognizes Messua, formerly of Raven Flight, as the raven steps forward into the conflict to glare at all the potential combatants. "Will you greet her with a ruined dream of peace and the pile of your corpses?" She fixes the instigator with her dark gaze, contemptuous. "Will you leave your daughter fatherless?"
His lips are pulled back in a snarl. "Better fatherless in a world where they still know how to respect a girl's been promised already!" He raises his weapon. The serpiente merchant bares his fangs and scales flicker over his skin. As he prepares to defend himself, many bystanders cry out in fear. Messua steps between them.
Suddenly there is a commotion at the front of the market, and then Zane Cobriana is there. He seizes the avian by by his raised arm and grasps the serpiente by the shoulder.
Every person in the market freezes. "What is going on here?" Zane demands. He is answered by silence.
The avian man swallows convulsively, attempting weakly to pull his arm back. Zane releases him and he manages to stammer, "This serpiente... He... He seized my daughter."
Zane turns his fiery gaze on the merchant. "Is this true?"
The serpiente whimpers in response, shaking his head wildly. "No, I didn't. No, Zane," he denies, but it is almost hopeless, as if the accusation alone is enough to condemn him.
Messua shakes her head. "Tabaqui," she indicates the avian man, "is overreacting."
Tabaqui glares at Messua, affronted.
Zane looks grim. Erica wonders what he will do. It is a sticky problem; his authority is not established here as it is in his own court. If he does not side with the avian in this, well, Erica can already see a blade pointed at his back. She could stand to watch him sweat about the decision a bit longer. But then Messua looks directly at her, and Erica knows she has been seen.
Erica steps forward from the crowd. As they see her, they fall back to give her passage until she stands before Zane, Messua watching her from the other side of the confrontation. "I witnessed all the events as they passed," Erica says.
Zane glances at her from narrowed eyes; he trusts her in this moment about as much as she trusts him. "Erica Silvermead, of the Royal Flight," he says. "I trust you are an authoritative and impartial witness." Zane's expression says he is as aware as she is of the irony that places his reliance upon her in this moment. The avian man and the serpiente merchant are both watching her with hope in their eyes. They both hope for her support of their version of the truth, for her words to exonerate them.
Erica has never been a fan of authorities who manipulate truth to suit their whims.
"The woman in question was walking in the market," she says flatly. "This merchant approached her and offered her a piece of jewelry. When she turned away, he spoke words to her that I did not hear. This caused her father to become angry. The merchant did not lay a hand upon her."
A murmur runs through the marketplace. Erica hears words behind her that sound like, "yes, that's the way it was," and "yes, he never touched her." As if their agreement mattered. Her testimony is given, and Erica fades again into the crowd. She looks up and sees Danica standing near the back of the market. Danica is watching Zane, her gaze fixed and rapt.
"Very well," Zane says. He turns to the potential combatants. "Karait," he addresses the serpiente merchant, "you need to watch your tongue around avian ladies." The merchant starts to protest, but Zane places a hand gently on his shoulder. "I admire the restraint you did show," he says, and the merchant subsides, nodding. "Karait, you owe this man an apology."
The merchant stiffens, but he nods. He turns to the avian man and bows formally. "My apologies, sir. I meant no disrespect to your daughter. I have much yet to learn about how to treat avian ladies properly."
There is a promise in his words that he certainly intends to follow up on that learning, and the avian man's lips curl in a snarl. But Zane turns his attention on the man and the snarl fades away.
"This man has apologized for any offense he has unwittingly given to your daughter, Tabaqui. Will you accept, or continue to hold his offense against him?" There is a genuine desire to know in Zane's question, an anticipation that the entire fate of both their realms hinges upon.
The avian opens his mouth, a defiant look on his face. He has won this confrontation, but he has not won the victory that he sought, and he looks as though he might press for more. He catches the eye of one of his friends and suddenly the fight seems to go out of him. "I accept," he says, bowing his head and stepping away.
The marketplace breathes a sigh of relief. Erica wants to laugh at them. They are all such lemmings, giving themselves to whichever way the wind blows. What does it matter? Creatures such as this rabble do not make decisions that impact the lives of others.
But she looks up at Danica watching them, watching Zane– and the love and pride that shine out of the hawk's face blinds Erica for a moment. She sways, caught up in the feeling. When she looks again, Danica has reigned her emotion in and hidden it behind a polite smile. Zane takes the hawk's hand and presses a kiss to her palm; he stands for a moment, his face pressed into her skin, his eyes closed, and Erica knows he is drinking in Danica's regard, that he can feel what she has hidden from her face. It lasts only a moment, then they break apart and Danica steps down to walk through the market with her alistair. She greets avians and serpiente alike, as if nothing has happened, as if it is the most natural thing in the world that she should rule them all together, equally.
Erica feels something in her world rock sideways, chaos and stillness swirling together.
Society, as she knows it, is something so stratified that one's place in it is set and immobilized in stone for years beyond remembering. Just as rulers are above the common rabble, Erica sets herself on a level as a warrior to the royal house.
But Danica doesn't realize the world is this way. She is the highest point, but if she doesn't see that it is so, then it is not. They are all just creatures to Danica, all on the same level, even the ones that hold themselves above everything else. It is something Erica didn't realize existed, that the blindness and whims of a ruler could be a good thing. A thing that fosters movement.
Danica is life and movement as she walks through the marketplace. Zane is a subdued presence at her side, but she turns often to share a private smile with him or to let their fingers brush with seeming nonchalance.
Rei is following them. He catches Erica's eye as he passes where she stands. They look at each other for a long moment, and then he smiles. He turns away and keeps walking, following his sun.
Erica blinks. Out of all the people she would have thought would understand the maelstrom in her mind... If anyone would comprehend the trouble she is having adjusting to this idea, she would have thought it would be him. But she sees now. The truth that has blinded her, he already knows.
Slowly, Erica turns and follows her Tuuli Thea and her Diente as they walk through the marketplace.
Chapter 13: Chapter 13
Being back at the Keep was about as welcoming as I had thought it would be. That is to say, it was- and it wasn't. The comfort of being in a place I had called home for most of my life eased my mind. But Nacola was as unbending as ever. She took one look at me when I walked in to greet her, grit her teeth and walked out of the room. Yes, there was still a bruise on my cheek, but her assumptions drove me wild and I refused to seek her company before she chose to apologize. Zane urged me to make peace with her, but his efforts in that area were weak at best and I was easily able to distract him.
If we ever went to war with the serpiente again, I knew exactly how to defeat them. Of course, most avians were far too reserved to even think about such tactics, much less actually carry them out successfully.
After the rather spectacular scene that had greeted us in the market the day we returned, our days at the Keep settled into a routine. I usually rose early to fly with the sun. Zane abstained, courteously, from accompanying me. After my flight, I broke the fast with my alistair. Rei or Ailbhe would brief us on anything that had happened since the last time we'd spoken and on what was intended for the day ahead. We spent the mornings attending to matters in the Keep and the afternoons either riding out to surrounding settlements or dealing with issues Adelina forwarded from the Palace that she felt deserved our immediate attention.
That Adelina had consented to remain at the palace and assist Charis and Irene in our absence had floored me. She had given in to Charis' request that she stay without a single argument. I wasn't sure whether to be flattered that she trusted me to protect Zane in the Keep, or suspicious that she had indeed given him over to the Ichneumon.
After the incident with the viper family the Ichneumon had once again disappeared. They were becoming quite a vexing problem, and his preoccupation with them was one of the reasons Zane was so easy to distract. He had taken the death of the viper family as poorly as I had, the brief incident of violence between us only the most visible sign of his agitation.
"I am their target," he said to me one night, after we had retired. "If they have killed others, it is because I have been unable to deal with them."
"Zane," I said patiently, stroking his arm. "You cannot blame yourself. Might as well blame me, or Karashan."
He moved beside me, leaning over me to hide his face against my hair. "You seem to be blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong a bit less than usual."
I smiled and kissed him. "Keeping you out of trouble is a full-time job. I don't have time to worry about myself." He returned the smile, and the kiss.
It was on one of these quiet, mundane nights, that I finally welcomed him as fully as a woman can welcome her mate. It was glorious, and unable to be described with words, and yet it was just another day, another step in the depth of my caring for him. As he'd said it would be.
The day we planned to return to the Palace dawned overcast and gloomy. I skipped my morning flight to instead combat the unseasonable weather by burying under covers with my alistair. He was pleased to encourage me to stay.
It was well into the morning before we were ready to head out. The clouds had cleared away and it looked to remain warm with a cool breeze throughout the day. Nice weather was welcome, with the festival of Namir-da mere days away.
I was just taking the reins of my horse when Karl flew down from the Keep. "Tuuli Thea," he said as he landed. "Milady Nacola wishes to have a word with you before you depart again."
I sighed. I wasn't in the mood to deal with my mother, and there were preparations that awaited Zane and I at the end of our journey that would likely keep us up well into the night even without any further delay. But Nacola and I hadn't spoken a single word to each other the entire time I had been in the Keep and a part of me missed her deeply. I opened my mouth to suggest Zane and the others start off without me and I would catch up with them later.
Zane sidled his horse next to mine and reached over to cup my cheek softly. "Go speak with your mother," he said. "We will go ahead. Catch us up whenever you're finished."
I wanted to kiss him, but the horses made it difficult. "I love you," I said.
He grinned in an open expression that fell easily over his features and made him look younger, less careworn. "Danica of my heart," he said softly, "Those words from your lips are the most beautiful words ever spoken. Do not keep me waiting long tonight." His hand fell from my cheek as he turned his horse and galloped off down the trail. Ailbhe and Kyler followed him, Karl and I watching them go.
I swung down from the horse and shifted my form to follow Karl up to the highest level of the Keep. We landed on the balcony down the hall from my room, and that was the last thing I remembered.
I dreamed I was standing on the highest cliff overlooking Mourner's Rock. I looked down to see Xavier and Mara, my sister and my brother, gathered beside my own pyre. I barely remembered Mara; she looked so young now, as she consigned me to the flames.
"There is a reason for everything that happens," a voice behind me said.
I turned to find Vasili standing there. He was looking directly at me and I shivered because in my dreams he had never done that before. "There is a reason for this?" I asked him.
"No," he smiled sadly. "There is a reason this didn't happen." He gestured to the scene below. "This time you went to seek Andreios, but he was not there to save you." The fire made no sound as it consumed my body, but I could hear the wind whistle around the rocks as if the scene was truly happening in my bedroom.
"And that is the reason that this," I pointed to the mourners, angry tears in my eyes, "this scene is reversed now? I have mourned Mara and I have mourned Xavier." I looked up at his face. "I have mourned you. Whom will I lose next?"
Vasili smiled patiently, his eyes sad. "Death is the result of war. We kill or we die ourselves," he said. "It is the duty of soldiers to bring that death to others."
"I am not a soldier." I shook my head, turning away and folding my arms around myself. "And I have put an end to the war."
"And so, life will become greater." Vasili's smile widened and he came forward to place his hands on my shoulders. "But Shardae, you will have to give it time. People can change, but they do not change quickly. You have a heart that loves. You wield power through that love. That will not be betrayed."
I frowned. "Alisdair was betrayed by those she trusted."
He released me. "Though one generally follows the other, love is not the same as trust. Alisdair was very trusting, to her detriment, but she lived in love. She would have been filled with sorrow to see how tired and hateful her children have become." He touched my cheek. "Remember: trust less, Shardae. Love more."
The pyre was burning low. I turned to look down, seeing the shadows of Mara and Xavier had been joined by four others; slender, dark-haired shadows that, when Xavier and Mara shifted and flew away, shifted themselves and slithered away down over the rocks, hoods spread.
"This is the world that you are building," Vasili murmured behind me. "Even those who continue only in the memories of the living celebrate its existence."
There was hope in those words, but I sighed, weary under the cold sky, and found myself echoing Zane's words. "Does it ever get easier?"
Vasili laughed softly. "You choose to fly against the wind, Shardae, but you will find bluer skies because of it."
When I woke, I could still hear the wind in the rocks.
The first thing I saw was the sun. It was low in the sky, and the deep colors streaking through the clouds were reminiscent of sunset more than sunrise. I jerked up from where I lay.
I was lying on a couch before a large open window that framed the sun; the room and furnishings around me looked like the Keep, but everything was old, and the room was cold with a heavy draft as if long disused. How had I gotten here? What had happened that I had wasted an entire day without someone looking for me?
The questions stirred a deep uneasiness within me. When I heard someone move behind me, I stood and whirled toward the sound, on guard. "What is going on?" I demanded.
Karl paused in approaching me, his expression politely confused. "You felt unwell, Tuuli Thea. You lay down for a while; I made sure no one disturbed you."
My uneasiness was only growing, and I asked, fearing I already knew the answer, "Where is Zane?"
Karl had been moving around the couch, but he paused again to form his answer. "He need not concern you any longer, Tuuli Thea."
Icy fingers ran up and down my spine as suspicion unfurled in my mind. "What have you done?"
He trailed his hands lightly over the back of the couch I had been lying on. "Tuuli Thea," he began, his voice soothing and reasonable. "I have done nothing but work to further your dream. You desire peace above all other things, an end to death. I can give you that, Tuuli Thea. I can give you that world." He stepped around that piece of furniture and moved toward me. I stepped back from him reflexively. "The serpiente have declared you their Naga," he continued. "There is only one thing between you and ultimate rule of their race: the Cobriana." He smiled encouragingly. "My allies will remove them, and then yours will be the sole voice the serpiente follow. They will become our servants, never to be a threat to us again."
I stood watching him, frozen in my disbelief, my mind rejecting the words he spoke. He stepped toward me again, taking my hands and turning me to face the setting sun. To realize that one I had trusted was the same one conspiring to kill my alistair numbed me from pulling away. He gestured to the view of far distant mountains. "We will become a powerful nation, finally," Karl continued, voice low and hypnotic. "One to outpace the Mistari, and rival shm'Ank. Your children will spread their wings over the lands of the falcons, never to fear a serpent’s fangs."
It felt so long ago, when I had first gone to Zane and he had proposed we attempt the Mistari's radical idea. Then, I had feared that if someone truly set to talking me out of that plan, they would succeed. Now, I wasn't sure if it was too late- if I was already too given to my chosen course- or if Karl's words were always too fanatical to have reached me.
I took a deep breath. "Karl," I said. I pulled my hands from his grasp. "I have already chosen a path free of death. Your allies have killed innocents in their quest and, even more than their relentless persecution of Zane, I cannot condone that." I looked into his eyes. They were stormy with anger and frustration at my inability to see as clearly as he could. "I have made promises to Zane, and I will not break those. If you have harmed him Karl," fear and a fierce protectiveness flared in me, "you will pay."
Karl frowned. "My allies will deal with him and his sister. It is my task to keep you out of the way." He seemed disgruntled. "They would not balk at hurting you. They do not understand, any better than you do I think." He turned away from me, disappointed in my response to his offer.
I took a deep breath. I was closer to the window, Karl farther into the room though still close to me. I was certain I could fly from the window before he could stop me, but I hesitated. I wasn't sure if it was because I was still in shock at his betrayal, or because I still held within me the desire to bring him to see my own reasoning and the belief that it was possible. In that hesitation he sensed my thoughts and grabbed my wrist.
I may not have been a soldier on the front lines, but I was still a trained warrior. The moment his hand closed around my wrist I pressed into him, using his momentum to twist his arm up under his body and break his grip, dumping him in a heap on the floor.
He rolled away and sprang to his feet, anger livid on his face. I watched him carefully and when he attacked again, I closed with him with a shrill scream. We grappled, he reluctant to hurt me and myself lacking any weapon more formidable than my fingernails. I shifted to my demi form, buffeting him with wings and clawing his face, but there was a reason Karl was a member of the Royal Flight and he bore the scratches with a stony-faced determination.
"I will not let them hurt you," he grit out between his teeth. "You will see reason."
I screamed again. It was a sound of frustration and sorrow more than anger, but I would not let him dictate my future any more than I would let my mother or Karashan do so. "You will see reason," I hissed back. "We will have peace." I managed to push him back far enough that I could get leverage for a proper kick. My foot connected with the side of his head, and I broke away fully. Karl was between me and the window now, and I scrambled for a weapon. A guard had left their spear behind the couch and the heavy wooden handle settled smoothly in my hands.
Karl narrowed his eyes at me. "If you will not," he said sincerely, "you will have to die. When you are gone, I'm certain Nacola will be more receptive to my words."
I glared right back at him, bringing the point of the spear down toward him. "You will not speak to my mother again. You will not use me to incite war. And if you will not see reason–"
I stopped abruptly. There was only one ending to that sentence, but it was not a statement I wanted to make. I hated death. It was horrid and painful, and wasteful, and had already taken too many of those I had known. I looked at Karl. There was a determined set to his jaw that said he would not be moved from his position, and there was a glint in his eyes that reminded me of the assassin; I remembered the first day the assassin had come to the Keep, and Karl's wonder at him. "Karl," I said, voice full of sorrow. "If you will not turn from this path, I will kill you."
His face hardened. "So be it."
His attack came swiftly. Rei had trained him and trained him well. I felt the thudding impact as his larger body slammed into me.
But Rei had also trained me. I released the spear as he wrestled me for it. Reaching forward, I pulled the dagger from his belt. He hadn't expected me to relinquish the spear so easily and he overbalanced. I sidestepped him and slipped around him, employing a dance move A'isha had taught me. I pulled him back against me and reached around to place the dagger against his throat. My face was calm, and my mind was set in my path, but I could still hardly stand to think about what I was doing as the dagger sank into flesh. I held his body against me until he was still. I released him then and realized there were tears on my face. I moved to wipe them away, but my hands were coated in his blood and I was almost ill.
Pushing away from the body, I made my way, breathing hard, to the window. I thought I would fly down to the lower level and see what I could find of the Royal Flight. I was disturbed that they had not answered my earlier calls, but as I looked out of the window I realized why that was.
Even if I didn't know this room, I had thought the furnishings looked familiar, that Karl had perhaps brought me to some area of the Keep that had been previously closed off. But wherever I was, it was not in the Keep. I knew the ground in every direction leading to the place I had been raised. The landscape below me now was unfamiliar, and there was not another avian in sight.
I could still fly away, find my way back somehow; there was a ridge visible in the distance that could have been a landmark I would recognize when I got closer.
I heard movement behind me, and a soft, urbane voice chuckled.
I turned around to find one of the Ichneumon standing above Karl's body and looking down at him. "I thought you would not take it well. But that stupid avian would not listen." He looked up at me, his eyes glinting red in the sunset light. There was a leanness to the man's grin that spoke of great experience with death and his hair was iron gray. "So, great Queen of the Hawks, and Naga of the Serpiente. What shall we do now?"
I narrowed my eyes. The dagger's grip didn't sit well in my filthy hand, but it would have to do. "Who are you? Why are you here?" I demanded.
He grinned. "I am called Pheeal." He bowed slightly with the introduction and walked closer, examining his surroundings and myself with a false interest. "You avians lured my cousin to this place and killed him. Is that the 'why' you want me to say? I suppose your kind would understand the lust of vengeance." His lifted his hand and his clawed fingers flashed. "Or would you understand better if I said it was simple bloodlust that drew myself and my sister to this place?" He looked up at me and grinned. "Karl told you our purpose, our reason for living." Pheeal dropped into a crouch with an easy fluid grace and grinned again. "I have already finished with that of course. It passed so quickly; sadly, there are just not as many cobras around as there used to be."
My heart cried out and I could not stop the words that passed my lips in desperate refutation, "You lie."
He laughed. "Little queen, what do I care for you or your people that I should lie to you?" He examined his claws with detachment and my blood ran cold because he was right- he had no reason to lie. "You will have your vaunted peace, through your ally's fractured vision. Do you think I care? I have what I came for." His gaze grew vague and distant, before his eyes suddenly focused on me again in sudden interest. "Your kind killed all the cobras, with your well-intentioned war." He rose from his crouch. "Do you think I could gain anything in proxy from you in that regard?" He cocked his head, his gaze growing more intent. "Well, hawk? Will I taste the blood of dead cobras when I tear out your throat?"
I couldn't allow myself grief yet, but I couldn't stop myself from feeling it. Not just for Zane, but Irene, and her unborn child... "For what you have done," I promised the Ichneumon, "you will die." I lifted Karl's dagger.
Pheeal grinned wildly. "Oh, little hawk." He raised his claws in a beckoning gesture. "Come and let us see what shall happen between us. Do you know, it is not only the cobras who can dance until their prey is blinded?"
My jaw was set with determination as I stepped forward.
Chapter 14: (Interlude: Zane)
Zane arrives at the Palace by going through motions that have become familiar, his mind still floating on thoughts of his Naga. He is greeted warmly by his sister and mother, and with a grim amusement by Adelina and Alice.
He does not understand the amusement until he sees what his guardswomen have waiting for him: a pile of paperwork that covers an entire table in the room they have set up for him. He's fairly certain they could have taken care of this themselves, and he is even more certain he could call false their protests that his assistance in the preparation for Namir-da is not needed this day, but at the same time he understands it is his and Danica's responsibility. He begins reviewing the gathered files on the soldiers who have been determined to be incompatible with the idea of peace and tries to form ideas for what can be done with them.
It is not a particularly engaging way to spend his afternoon, and Zane's mind constantly returns to Danica. Her parting words to him sing through his veins. Danica is... Danica is like picking up a stone and turning it over to discover that it is a geode, with faceted and hidden places inside. Danica is like looking at the surface of the ocean, and then diving in and realizing how deep it goes, and that it is fearfully beautiful all the way down to its depth. She is unexpected and unlooked for and utterly indispensable. Without Danica, the world is a lesser place.
The sun is low in the sky before he begins to be concerned with her continued absence. He knows Nacola, and that she will try to keep Danica from him as long as she can, but he knows Danica as well, and she will not be detained if she does not wish to be. Which means she must wish to spend the afternoon reconciling with her mother rather than seeking him. He must respect that, but he doesn't have to like it.
When Kendrick brings him a distraction, he welcomes it.
"The market is too crowded," Kendrick grouses. "The festival is just making it worse. We're trying to expand into an unused area, but we'll have to take out a section of wall to open up more room. I wanted to get your opinion first."
Zane follows him to the back of the synkal. The place is thronged with serpiente cheerfully preparing and gossiping; there are avians about, but they tend to linger on the edges of the crowd. His people reach out to touch him as he passes, and he smiles warmly as he returns their gestures. Kendrick leads him down a passage and through a door into a room that is unfamiliar. The room is dark and there is no warning other than the sound of air moving against the blade, but Zane reacts on instinct.
The blade that would have slipped in between his ribs only slices his arm lightly. He whirls and pins his opponent to the wall in the darkness and realizes that it is Kendrick who has attacked him. The sheer improbability of it startles him enough that he offers no protest when Kendrick wrenches free of his grasp.
"You are corrupted by your love for that damned avian," Kendrick hisses, eyes bright with hate. "They will rid us of you, at last." In the shadows red eyes gleam.
Zane is still off balance, but he manages to whirl around and bring the knife he took from Kendrick up in a guard position. The assassin brings her own knives down upon Zane, her eyes like flecks of blood in the low light. She does not hold that position, but immediately retreats and strikes again.
His own eyes are bright with anger and Zane takes cover in the darkness. He fades into the cobra, black scales gliding over the floor after the Ichneumon. He can feel the warmth of her body in the darkness and the call of it is intoxicating, demanding the attention of his fangs.
The assassin is too inexperienced to maintain the upper hand she had as she follows him in transforming. She is less of a warrior than the first Ichneumon was, but she is so fast. Her small, furred body never rests in any position for more than a second. He strikes dirt several times, and then he feels her fangs sink into his flesh. She has caught him by the tail, but it was what he had counted on. He cracks his body like a whip, slamming her against the ground with as much force as he can muster. She cries out, and shifts back, but he is waiting for her. He shifts mid-movement as he reaches for her, his hands snagging in the cloth of her tunic, and throws her bodily through the wall behind her.
Serpiente scatter, shouting, as the wreckage of the wall spreads into the synkal. In the light of fading day Zane can see there is blood coming from the assassin's mouth and he knows she is broken, inside. Her eyes are bright and mad as she flings herself at him again. Her mouth is open with the effort it costs her to breath. Her white fangs, still sharp though they gnaw impotently at air, are flecked with her own blood. She slashes at him wildly with her blade. He scrambles to keep away; he can't tell if the blade is poisoned. He seizes her by the wrist. She drops the weapon and he pulls her close. Her claws reach for his throat, but he opens his mouth and bares his own fangs.
The assassin struggles fiercely, refusing to accept her defeat. She strikes out at him in any way she can, her claws digging into the flesh of his arm and her fangs snapping madly as she reaches for his throat. He can't get close enough to bite her without being mangled in return. Growing annoyed, Zane tries to pull her arm close enough to administer his bite there.
There is a flash of white and Adelina slips up behind the assassin. She meets Zane's eyes over the body of the Ichneumon. He is too caught up in dealing with the assassin to remember that she is also supposed to be betraying him, but she pauses and holds his gaze as if she is demanding that he remember it. So, he does take this moment to recall what Lungri said. He still can't think of why Adelina would do such a thing- and he can't decide if he is more heartbroken that she would turn on him, or on Charis and the hope and trust that Charis has placed in her. The assassin is falling silent in his grasp, and it is then he realizes that Adelina is standing still because she has already buried her dagger to the hilt in the assassin's back.
The Ichneumon falls to the ground and Zane breathes deeply. He feels he must say something to Adelina here, because he knows she has seen on his face a suspicion that he never truly felt. He reaches for her and clasps her shoulder, his hand curling at the back of her neck. "Thank you," he says, and he wants to say more but he is suddenly aware of a wall that has come up between them. He hates it, and for the first time he allows himself to think on the thoughts he had pushed aside in order to pursue his goal, and he looks at what he has lost.
He takes his hand back. "Irene?" he asks immediately.
"She is safe," Adelina reports briefly. "Galen is with her. There has been no sight of any other Ichneumon beyond this one."
Zane nods and looks around to see that Alice and Kyler have taken charge of a bleeding and mutinous Kendrick. His people from around the synkal are watching them, and he can see Ailbhe and Karashan approaching. "Lungri," Zane says to Adelina. "Detain him as well. He may be an accomplice; he approached Danica to cast blame on you, but she would not hear it."
Adelina nods sharply, her brows furrowing as she calculates. In that moment Zane looks past the woman he loved and sees his brilliant guard captain. But she reaches out in her own turn and cups his cheek with her hand as if she realizes and forgives him for the moment of doubt on his face. She steps close to him and in a soft voice she says, "She is good for you." He breathes in his surprise, and her smile is wry. "If you tell her, I will have to kill you myself of course."
"Of course," he murmurs back. He pulls her close for a moment, denying the existence of walls, and kisses her softly on her forehead. She bears it with good grace and does not chastise him for being a patronizing ass, which he marks a good thing.
Karashan comes to him, a worried frown marring her face. "I came as quickly as we realized. Andreios and Nacola are organizing the search, but it has already been several hours she has been unaccounted for."
For a moment her words make no sense. Zane has to take that moment to think, to calm his racing heart. "Danica." It is not a question, and yet it is the only question worth answering.
"We thought she had left with you. It wasn't until I spoke with Messua that I learned that Karl had called her back, but she did not go to see Nacola."
The words break over Zane like a spray of water and he is not sure he understands them each individually. But the outline is clear. "I must get to the Keep."
Karashan shakes her head. "I am telling you, we have searched every inch of the Keep, every inch of ground surrounding it, and the Royal Flight and my own Ravens continue to search outward at Andreios' direction. Danica is not there, and Karl is gone."
Adelina frowns. "How could she have been removed from your Keep without being seen?" Her tone is not accusatory, but her words ruffle feathers.
It is Zane who answers. "There are ways into and out of the Keep that are not well known. If she and Karl left before you began searching, they could have easily departed without being observed." Alice and Karashan are watching him with sharp eyes, and a part of Zane is glad that Andreios is not there to demand explanation of this knowledge, but mostly he doesn't care because, "We need to find her."
Alice nods agreement, but asks, "Where would she go?"
Karashan hesitates, but she glances over to where other serpiente are helping Kyler force-march the surly Kendrick to a holding cell. "Given when has happened here as well, I believe it well within the realm of possibility to assume that Karl is working with the Ichneumon."
Zane nods his agreement, and suddenly realizes, "He is protecting her. The Ichneumon struck at her when she defended me; Karl is keeping her from me until they complete their hunt."
"Then he will not harm her," Adelina observes.
Zane breathes deeply for a moment, the first in what feels like days, but the breath is snatched from him as he exhales it. "Danica will not sit quietly," he says with certainty, and Karashan meets his eyes with grim agreement.
"We still do not know where they are," Alice points out, and Zane whirls on her in a sudden rage. She shrinks from his garnet gaze with a choked gasp. Tensions suddenly skyrocket; Karashan's hand touches the hilt of her sword reflexively and Adelina bares fangs in response.
Before any other words can be spoken Zane pulls himself back. He holds up a restraining hand. "Alice, I ask your pardon. You speak only truth, and, even if I do not wish to, I need to hear it."
She is still trembling with the adrenaline rush of fear, but she nods. She opens her mouth, but it takes several tries before she can muster the words. "I grant it."
He offers her his hand, his eyes cast to the ground. She touches it briefly with her own trembling one. "For that," he says, "I cannot thank you enough."
Karashan and Adelina are still staring at each other, but they are commanders now and their thoughts have moved on. "He would take her to the one place the Ichneumon would not be while they are hunting, and that we have been unable to find. Their den," Karashan murmurs. "The Ichneumon do not know this area, so it is likely Karl found it for them. It is likely then also that it is a place that would be comfortable for him as well as for them, but the Ichneumon are not creatures of the air."
"In our tales the Ichneumon prefer ruins to natural made dens," Adelina adds, and there is a spark of something behind her eyes. "There is a place..." Everyone is watching her, but her eyes are focused deeply in the past. "Before we came to Charis, my brother and I found a crumbling tower and our nest called it home for a while. It is tall enough that birds could find it easily, but well rooted for the Ichneumon's tastes."
"Where?" Zane breathes. He is poised, on the balls of his feet, ready.
She frowns. "It was many years ago. I do not think it would be visible above the trees until very close. Ailbhe!" she calls, and her brother comes. "Do you remember–"
With the strange prescience of twins, he responds immediately, "The tower? It falls east of here, against the backing of a high, rocky ridge." He frowns in concentration. "I do not remember exactly where, but I think I would know when we were close."
Eyes turn to Zane. "Get a troop mounted," he commands. "We will search by ground. Karashan, Alice, take as many avian soldiers as you can find and search by air to the east." They all nod with sharp precision. The avians take to the air and within moments the sound of hooves echoes away to the east.
The sun is hovering below the horizon, and the light is failing. Zane feels the urgency building in him as their search yields no results.
In a spray of dirt, a horse slides to a halt beside his. He looks up to see Chundra astride it. She is supposed to be mapping in the west and he doesn't understand what she is doing here, but the first words out of her mouth are, "We found it."
He nods. His, "Go," isn't needed– she is gone already, and he sends his horse tearing after her.
They arrive at a copse, the ruin rising above them, and meet Adelina there. Zane can see Ailbhe further back in the forest, directing troops around the sides to flank the position; Erica kneels to the side, arrow already on the string, and he knows if Karl flies out of the high window they can see, the traitor will be dead. Karashan stands near Ailbhe, but she walks forward when she sees him. Messua is with her; when they see him arrive with Chundra they all come, seeking his orders.
Zane eyes the crumbling tower. The facade seems to be in better shape than the interior, which does not bode well for their invasion. There is a large avian style window with balcony near the top, and there is light visible inside the window.
He has climbed parts of the Hawk's Keep, and again this time the prize that waits atop this tower beckons him with a tempting flicker. But to climb the ruin in the dark would be the height of foolishness; he pulls his personal desire back. Too much hinges on Danica. If she is well, he will do anything to ensure that she remain that way. But if she is injured or... his mind cannot even think the words, but if she is– then he is still Diente, and he is alistair, and his people will need him more than ever. He surveys the soldiers available to him.
"Adelina," he says, "surround the base completely. I'd rather not risk troops inside that deathtrap, but no one is to escape. Karashan, I will go up with your avians, through that window." Adelina hisses softly under her breath, but there is no argument and very little surprise all around. Messua and Alice, their black–feathered wings spread behind them, each offer him an arm.
He takes a deep breath and takes the ravens' arms. Fear is suddenly high on the list of emotions that roil through him, but it is strangely muted. As his feet lose connection with the earth, he thinks this must be what love truly is– no longer fearing what is terrifying, because he is filled so completely with a hope that drowns everything else.
Karashan goes first, lighting on the balcony, blade drawn. It is easier to look up than down, and Zane watches her scan the room before her. She makes a sign with her hand, but he cannot read it. "She lives," Messua says beside him. He has little time to react as they are at the balcony now themselves.
He drops to his knees, hands pressed to the balcony floor as he breathes for a moment, but then his head snaps up and his eyes take in the scene before him.
Danica stands before him, her back to the balcony. Before her is another of the Ichneumon, one he has not seen before. This one is older than the female who came after Zane in the palace and the synkal, and, he is certain, far more experienced.
The Ichneumon smiles to see him. "I knew you would find your way here," he taunts. "I gave Dewanee her chance, but she was young and headstrong. I knew she would fail. I ensured you would come to me, because I hold the treasure you desire." The Ichneumon raises a hand to point a finger at him and, as if by the Ichneumon's command, Danica turns to face him.
She is blank to him, in the way that avians are and in the way that Danica has not been in a long time. Her eyes look without seeing him and her hands are covered in blood. Something clutches in his chest, and he feels the same despairing anger as he felt when he saw the very first assassin appear over the balcony in the Hawk's Keep. "What have you done to her?" His voice is rough, and he barely recognizes it as his own. He remembers tales from his childhood, the powers the Ichneumon can command, and despair is taking a firm root amid the hope that bloomed in him at finding Danica alive.
Karashan and her soldiers are slipping into the room. "I have done nothing," the Ichneumon protests, watching with amusement as the Royal Flight come between him and Danica. They circle around the body of Karl; Karashan looks from his slit throat to Danica's hands and the glance she trades with Zane is worried.
"I have done nothing," The Ichneumon repeats. "Nothing but speak to her of what she has lost." He crouches. "She clings to such fragile things." He glances contemptuously at Karl. "But this," his gaze returns to Zane and his hand flicks between them as if to indicate a bond, "this has been long in the coming. I would like to savor it. I think, to begin, I will make you kill the little hawk, hmm?" He leans back, relaxed. "It should not be difficult. You've done it before." The Ichneumon's eyes flash red as he laughs.
Zane shakes his head; his words are for the others in the room, because he does not care what the Ichneumon thinks. "The war is over. I will never hurt Danica."
The Ichneumon laughs again. He twirls his fingers, his attention focused on Danica. "Little hawk, see how the ghost comes now. He is the one who put blood on your hands. Repay him for what he has taken from you." Danica steps forward, her blade raised as she brings it down upon Zane.
Zane raises his own blade in defense and blocks her strike. "Danica," he says, but she is not there, her eyes empty. The long dagger slashes at him. She is not a soldier, but Danica is graceful and intent, and it takes much of his skill to keep himself safe. He retreats before her, a part of him wondering how he can disarm her. He knows if he can touch her, he can bring her to herself. The blankness of her stare as she thrusts the dagger mocks him, but he refuses to give up hope. She is Danica and she is his Naga. He knows her, and she will know him. He twists away from her dagger and comes up sharp against the wall. There will be no more retreat.
She comes toward him, dagger raised. He parries her blade with his, one handed. He raises his other hand to touch her cheek. "Danica," he calls.
He would swear she hears him. She falters and lowers her blade.
The Ichneumon laughs. "You know she would not heed my call if, deep inside, a part of her did not already want to." He snaps his fingers. Danica raises the dagger again.
Zane catches the blade against his own, but there is nowhere to retreat, and he will not attack. He grunts as he feels the blade pierce flesh.
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.
As I was finishing some details on the last scene I realized that I don't actually know when Namir-da happens. In chapter 16, A'isha says she will dance Maeve's solo on "midsummer night," but then when they actually get to the day in chapter 19 Danica's narration describes it as being the "fall equinox." I went with midsummer, because solstices are more fun that equinoxes.