It sounded like some sort of joke.
What do you get when you cross a hawk with a cobra?
My mother was a Shardae hawk, my father- a Cobriana cobra. The most unlikely couple, yet the happiest in either realm. They told me stories of how they had used to hate each other, and my father especially loved to retell how he had nearly killed Mother in her sleep, before the war had ended. I didn't believe him. They loved each other too much to have been willing to kill. It was evident in the way they moved, touched, gazed at each other. They had only been seventeen when they had wed. My age. I wondered if there was someone out there for me. Someone who would touch me as they touched, with only the purist love.
It wouldn't happen. Not anytime soon, anyway. I was different, a mix, a hawk crossed with a cobra. There was no one for me. No one who could look at me without disgust or awe, or could even hope to be my lover. If I wed an avian, the serpiente people would object. If I loved a serpiente, the avian culture would be outraged at being second best. And I am the only one of my kind, as far as avian records go.
It was a joke, to be forced to live without love. A joke. What do you get when you cross a hawk with a cobra?
"Iza. Iza?" the voice poked at my consciousness like an annoying sparrow. "Iza?" Consistent and no less irritating. "Ariza Cobriana, get out of bed this instant."
Oh gods… Aunt Irene.
I blinked my eyes open slowly, wincing in the bright light.
"Where have you been, young man, and you'd better have a damn good excuse!" Her garnet eyes twittered dangerously. I was in trouble.
Doubly so, as I realized I had not changed out of my dirty clothing from the night before. Even now, I could still smell the strong liquor and feel the incessant pounding of a massive hangover.
"You reek," she spat, through back my covers, "You absolutely reek. What's going on? Why do you feel you must get drunk? This is the sixth time this month, boy!"
I groaned, trying to focus on her face through the haze of pain. It didn't work. Instead of trying again, I rolled over, and off my bed. With a bitten back cry I hit the floor, shivering. The cold stone pressed against my skin, sending unconscious ripples of black feathers across my back, where my shirt had been pulled up. As a dangerous cross, I didn't have as much control over my shift as pure birds or pure snakes. Especially now, when I felt an earthquake rumble through my head.
"Get up." It was a command, and one that would have consequences if not obeyed.
I struggled to my feet, using the bed as a much needed support.
"Upright, young man. Whether you be Crown Prince or court jester, you will treat your elders with respect."
I must be in a hell of a lot of trouble. What had happened?
"You father knows, and your mother is…" she searched for the right word, "absolutely appalled at what you have become. Do you have no respect? For yourself? For your title? I covered for you once, my nephew, and look at where it's gotten you. I thought it was just a stage, that you would see out of it eventually. But you seem to have gotten worse, if possible!"
I forced my eyes to remain open, as I appeared to listen to her lecture. She had. She had been my friend, my ally in my random escapades out of the castles. She had covered for me on my first pub excursion. She hadn't known about the second, the third, the fourth… She would have put a stop to it, and quickly. With all eyes on my parents, there wasn't a single person in either realm who did not watch me, to see how well I would grow up. Anything I did, the world would know about it. Any scandal would bring shame and doubt around my parents, and that was not something they needed more of, not with peace finally around the corner.
"Are you listening to me?" Aunt Irene grabbed my ear heard, jerking me violently into the present. I winced, and smacked her hand away.
"I hear you," the words cracked in my dry throat, and I was reminded of the aftertaste of hard liquor.
I honestly don't know how I appeared, but my face must have been indescribably ignorant, for she stomped her foot and hissed. "That's it! You ungrateful idiot! When are you doing to grow up! You are the heir to the throne. You need to learn responsibility. This… this prancing about, getting drunk weekly, will not do! You are seventeen. Start acting like it, or you will find consequences that are beyond your worst imaginations!"
That was when the door to my room slammed open. Mother flounced in, followed by a distressed-looking Father. Mother took a look at me and paled, shooting a glance at her husband. He lifted his shoulders wearily in a gesture of defeat.
Mother turned to me, "Iza, what's wrong?"
I kept my face expressionless, as was taught in avian culture. I head Father sigh. Hiding like a bird always disconcerted him, but according to Mother it was normal.
Father moved close to Mother, resting a light hand on her waist and whispering in her ear. She bit back a protest, but nodded to Irene, who swept out of the room. Mother followed shortly after. Alone now, Father shut the door and came to stand beside me, "You may sit. I know you have one hell of a hangover."
Gratefully I dropped onto the plush bed, wondering what he was going to say this time. Last time it had been my inheritance. The time before had been his past, and the war. The time still before that had been some other boring lecture. The talks were beginning to meld and twist in my mind, making it unclear exactly what had been said.
"Iza," he started his Cobriana eyes holding me, "What's gotten into you? Why are you in such despair?"
"Despair?" I echoed, not fully understanding.
He shifted uneasily, "Despair. Only men in despair will drink as you. I do not believe this is some… teenage foolishness. If you are troubled, speak to us about it. You're not being beaten again, are you?" He was referring the first time I had shifted, frightening my playmates into the sky. When they had returned, they had laughed and hurt me for being different. Still young, I had been unable to shift back, and had flown to Father, a trembling chick. Needless to say, those avians never bothered me again… They never bothered to look at me again either.
"No," I ground out between clenched teeth, black feathers racing across my fists only to disappear into tanned skin again.
"My boy," he took my hand into his cool palm, "You have had it very rough. Nobody could ask for better than how you have matured over the years. I am proud of you. You are my son, not the mix of cobra and hawk, but my son. Do not forget that. I love you; your mother is molting with worry over you, please remember this," his gaze had softened, and I could at least fidget, "Your people are depending on you. They need a leader, not some… stoned teenager who cannot control himself."
So it boils down to politics. Again. It was always 'your people' this, 'your people' that. Do what's best for the people; the peace is still very fragile. Forget your own troubles, the people need you. It made me sick to just think about it. Or maybe that was the drink… How was I supposed to support the people when they rejected me as a freak?
"Iza, you're changing." The sharp tone helped me calm, and the black feathers in my hair receded. "What is wrong?"
"Nothing," I stood, trying to ignore the fierce pounding in my head. I walked to the window and flung it open. "I'll be back eventually," I shifted, and took off, feeling rather than seeing my father's unease at my form. As well as they tried, my parents never would be completely at ease with my build. A black hawk, with deadly cobra's venom. I was a freak, and there was nothing I could do but run.
I flew now, over the familiar territory between avian and serpiente land. My forest. My refuge, and the only place I could find solitude. The animals shied from me, knowing I was of unnatural get. It didn't bother me terribly, else I would have killed myself long ago.
Landing softly, I concentrated hard to shift back into my human skin. It took a few tries, but I finally got it. Then, cursing my lot, I wandered the ground. Walking does remarkable things to one's spirit. As I made my first mile, I already felt better, especially with the effects of the hangover decreasing.
I neared the bottom of a tall cliff, and I heard an odd shrill. I looked up, to see two birds clawing at each other violently. A vulture loomed over a black bird, at least two sizes bigger than the other, and the small fighter already bled form a wing wound. The black bird fluttered in vain, and pitched downwards.
Immediately enraged at the unfairness of the battle, I tried my Demi form- a human body with black wings. Once again, I couldn't control my shift and I was full bird in my desperation to catch the poor thing. We collided mid-air, and while I slowed his fall, I initiated mine. Twisting madly through the air, we finally hit ground hard, a tangled mess of blood and feathers.
Exhausted, I returned to my human shape before the vulture got any ideas. The sound of wings beating the air told me the pest had left, and I turned my attention to the other.
My eyes widened, and I drew my breath sharply. It was a black hawk. Charcoal like my own pelt of feathers. He lay on his side, his wide eyes on me at every move. I reached out to touch his feathers, to ensure he wasn't some illusion, and he whipped his head around and bit down hard on my hand. I jerked back, cursing. The mark turned red rapidly, hinting that the bird was poisonous. It was confirmed as my hand proceeded to go numb.
Normal avians did not bite. They did not have poison. They did not have tiny teeth in their beaks that allowed them to break an enemies' skin. Was it possible I had found another like me?
Without bothering to attempt to halt the flow of poison, I scooped the annoyed bird into my good arm and started at a jog to the castle. The poison wouldn't affect me that badly, I figured, as I was poisonous myself, but it would still hurt.
I managed to get within range of the guards before collapsing, unable to move. I yelled for help, and heard the crashing of footsteps as someone answered.
When my eyes finally had the strength to open, I found myself in my bed, wrapped in what seemed like hundreds of blankets. My head was pounding again, something I seemed to never be free of. Aside from my head, my entire body felt stiff. Twisting my head to look at my guard was a chore I nearly couldn't manage. The serpiente guard's shoulders dropped in relief, as he scuttled away- most likely to tell my parents. Within moments, Mother and Father were at their knees beside me, both their faces lined with worry.
"Pop…" I tried to grin, not really sure if it came out or not, "You have a gray hair…" He looked mortified as his hand reflexively touched his hair. Then, he caught my joke and turned to Mother, "He's fine. Make him do chores."
She put a retraining hand on his arm before turning to me, "How do you feel?"
"You'll feel that way for a few more days," she said, rubbing swear-slicked hair back from my forehead.
"I'm cold," I suddenly realized, despite all the covering on me that I was indeed shivering.
"You have a fever, babe," Mother leaned close, her eyes alight with sympathy and worry. "You just need rest." Her eyes flicked behind my line of vision, and then quickly back to me. "That bird… the one you had with you? He's here, in the cage over there," she pointed, and I struggled up to see, despite her protests. The beast was restrained in a cage of metal, squeaking indignantly. His wing had been healed, I could see. I flopped back onto the pillows. Father moved closer, saying, "We think he can become human, but it he is like you, have may have forgotten or merely can't." His eyes glittered, "If he is like you, then you aren't alone."
This was the last thought I had before I slept again.
Upon awaking, a scratching noise first reached my ears. Literally.
"Ow!" I jerked up, clutching my ear. The black bird squeaked as my movement tossed him fluttering to the floor. He had scratched me! I glared at the hawk as he raced around the floor of my room. "You," I growled, clambering from my bed. My legs, not strong enough to hold me yet, folded under me, but I had expected that. I crawled along after the bird, making futile grabs at it when I felt it was close enough, yet he always managed to slip away. Finally, I stopped and leaned against the wall. I was exhausted, and couldn't even get up to get back to my bed. I was panting as if I had run at least five miles. Tipping my head back, I let my bare chest rise and fall spasmodically.
Warmth near my hand caught my attention, and it turned out to be the pest. He nuzzled my hand with what almost looked like affection. "You know…" I managed between gasps, "I suppose… you need a name…" The pest looked at me with wide, expectant eyes. "Pest…" I groaned, looking away. That was it. Pest. "Samka," I said, lifting my hand from his reach lest he bite me again. Samka meant 'pest' in one of the Old Languages.
Surprisingly, he understood. He flitted onto my lap, giving a happy chirp. "You're heavy," I muttered, but made no attempt to push him off. I can't remember what happened next exactly, but I guess I fell asleep. When I opened my eyes, I was in the same position; the hawk wandered my lap like a wary dog. I looked up to see a ring of people standing around me. Father was one of them.
"Would you mind calling off your watchdog?" he smirked, nodding to the bird.
I shot him a puzzled look.
"We tried to move you to your bed," Father explained, "because I really don't know how you got here, and your little bird there bit one of my men. Put him out for a few days. Would you like to sleep in your bed, or would you rather remain on the floor?"
I decided the bed would be much more comfortable than the floor, and I pushed the hawk from my lap to reach for a hand up. He made an indignant squawk, but made no move to bite another guard as I leaned on my father, who helped me get back to bed. Instead, the bird hopped along beside me and, as I lay down, he jumped and fluttered onto one of my pillows.
"Why were you up?" Father asked as he started pulling my covers over me.
"Samka was annoying me," I murmured, feeling weary in the warmth of my blankets, "I tried to catch him to put him away… he's too fast."
Father reached for the bird, only to jerk his hand back as the beak opened and snapped at him. "He is a nasty one," he growled, "I think you're the only one who can even go near him." His hunch was confirmed as the bird scooted closer, resting his soft body against my ear and cheek. Father sighed resignedly, and patted my forehead as he had done when I was a child, "Get some rest." He jerked his hand away before my guardian could take a bite, and exited the room.
"You need to behave," I yawned, knowing somehow that the bird understood. Comforted by his protective presence, I fell deeply asleep.
I woke again to complete darkness. Sleep had moved me onto my stomach, and a clump of feathers lay dormant under my palm. Still weary, I didn't shift at all, hoping sleep would return quicker if I didn't move.
The door to my room opened almost noiselessly, to signal the change of guards.
"Is he sleeping?"
A hiss of disdain escaped one guard's lips, "Why isn't he dead? This was the perfect chance!"
"I couldn't do anything! The doctors flitted in here left and right. His parents, his aunt, the Royal Flight…"
"Lie! You couldn't have stretched the truth? Delayed the doctor's treatment? This was the opportune moment!"
I stiffened, trying to keep my breathing regular and lethargic. What were they talking about?
"You waited too long," spat the first voice in a low tone, "Now we have to use the fall back plan. You idiot. This would have kept any of our people out of danger!"
Desperately, I tried to fight my panic. If I got too excited, they'd see me shift and know I was awake.
"Then why don't you do it now? Nobody's here but you, and him. Look at him sleeping, it would be easier than clipping a hawk."
Oh gods, they meant to kill me! My hand clenched unconsciously, and then I froze, hoping they had not seen it. What was I to do? If I moved, they would know I was awake and kill me for what I had heard. Yet if I lay here, they may kill me anyway. Then, I felt Samka stir under my fingers. I eased my fingers tighter, trying not to give away my movement. Samka didn't like the increasing tautness, and shuffled uneasily. I pinched one of his feathers and he jerked, and I knew he was awake. He moved grudgingly, retaking his place by my head. Behind the dark of my eyelids, his warmth was a comfort.
Until I heard the sound of a knife being slid from a sheath.
Apparently, Samka heard it too. He raised his head and ruffled his feathers, tickling my skin as if to say, "I've got this covered." And sure enough, the noise stopped.
"That bird…" the second voice murmured, "It's poisonous, and very protective of the kid."
Samka leapt, and I heard his beak snap shut on empty air. The first voice cursed as the second chuckled. "Get out of here," the first, the one who had drawn his knife, sighed to the other. I heard the door click open and shut, signaling the exit, and the lone guard tossed himself into the chair by my bed. Despite my fear, I felt sleep creeping upon me again. Samka set himself by my head, and the rapid patter of his heart in my ear lulled me.
"Iza, babe, how are you feeling?"
For the first time in months, I smiled before opening my eyes. "Jezzi," I grinned, focusing on her flowing raven hair and glittering garnet eyes.
She broke open a wide smile, "The one and only!" She leaned forward, heedless of her low-cut shirt, and pressed her elbows on her knees, "How do you feel?"
"Hungry," I promptly answered. Jezzi was pure serpiente, my only cousin. A few years older than I, she was a bit on the reckless side, and, to the shock of both cultures, was courting an avian man.
She flipped her long hair over her shoulder and reached for a plate on the table beside my bed. I sat up, disturbing Samka, and took the plate into my lap. The black hawk sat by my side, eyeing my plate suspiciously. I grinned and held a morsel for him, which he accepted reluctantly. Jezzi was looking at the hawk with interest, "Do you think he can shift?"
"I really don't know," I chomped on my meal, my first in days, "He hasn't made any attempt to…"
"Too bad it isn't a girl," Jezzi sighed, getting that wistful look in her eyes that spoke of romanticism, "You two could fall in love, wed, and not disturb either culture! How lovely!" She paused, "Then again, being the same sex never stopped anyone."
I choked on my drink, spitting it over Samka and my sheets. Jezzi laughed and helped wipe my face, handing me a napkin for Samka. The little beast wouldn't hold still, and I had to press his jaw shut to keep him from biting me in annoyance. I had a feeling that he was only attacking me half-heartedly now, rather than biting me like the day of our meeting. Maybe he was warming up to me.
"It's good to see you looking so flushed," Jezzi laughed, "When they first brought you home, you were so pale! And you haven't been laughing recently."
I shrugged, releasing Samka's beak to finish my meal. Jezzi cast another look at the now-sticky bird, "Is it that much of a comfort to know there's another like you?"
I didn't allow my eyes to leave my plate, "It means I'm not alone."
Jezzi's cool fingers brushed my hair back, "Babe, you were never alone."
Not ready for her pity, I pulled away, "You don't understand."
She slipped from the chair and climbed the bed, straddling my outstretched legs and forcing me to look at her. "Babe," she breathed, "I raised you. I can read you better than you can read yourself, and I know you better than anyone. Don't dare tell me I don't understand. You think it's easy to love an avian? Even Mother voiced her disapproval. It's hard. My friends have become wary of me, and the people look at me as if I am crazy. Please don't shut me out now, not after seventeen years." She suddenly grinned, "My love is made easier because of you. You are evidence that hawks and snakes can sleep side by side." Jezzi grabbed my head between her hands and kissed my forehead, "I love you, babe, and if you are happy you don't need to explain to me. Just be happy."
I stared at her. It was common for serpiente to talk like this, to lay it out for the other. It was their culture. But never before had it been directed at me. To be honest, I didn't quite know what to do. Before I could embarrass myself, Jezzi gracefully leapt off the bed and sank into her chair, "So, what's its name?"
"Samka," I replied, feeling slightly relieved. She knew I wasn't used to such blatant displays of affection, being raised partly in avian society.
She laughed, "Doesn't that mean 'pest'?" I shrugged, as if it would be obvious.
"He is a little pest. He bit me, made me chase him around the floor of my room, bit a guard, and now he's eating my food!" I yanked the plate from him, and he squeaked. I glared at him, "Mine." He snapped his beak at me, but made no move to actually hurt me. I considered it a victory on my part. Then, I remembered something. "Jezzi," I looked at here, "who was in here last night?"
"Yes, but who specifically?"
"I'm not sure," she tapped her chin thoughtfully, "Whoever was available probably. Why?"
"I heard something," I lowered my voice in case someone was posted outside the door, "Someone wants me dead."
She stared at me a moment, then burst out laughing, "Dead! But you're so much better alive!"
I felt rage creep up in my mind. She didn't believe me. "I mean it! I heard the guards talking last night! There's some sort of plan taking place, and they wanted me dead!"
Jezzi had calmed by now, "The guards? Honestly, Iza, can't you be more creative than that? The guards are completely loyal to Uncle, no one would dare harm you."
"If they harm me, they jeopardize the peace," I argued, very annoyed that she wasn't taking this seriously.
"Iza, the last assassination attempt took place fifteen years ago! People are happy! They don't want to destroy the peace."
I frowned, clenching my fists. I really didn't have any proof to give her, and I doubt I could recognize the two voices if I heard them again. I did know that they were snakes, however, so that narrowed it down to one nation…
"That poison must have gone to your head, little cousin," Jezzi stood.
"I'm telling the truth!" my jaw dropped. I hadn't expected her to disregard me. Perhaps play along, but to blatantly shoot me down? She patted my head consolingly before leaving. I let a run of feathers course over my body after the door closed, venting my anger and frustration. Samka enjoyed the show, chasing the feathers up my arm. "Can you shift?" I caught him up in my hands and held him eye-level. He cocked his head at me curiously. I set him on my covers and shifted quickly, startling him.
At the stunned look on his face, I grinned inwardly. I snapped at him effectively catching him unawares and sending him scuttling backwards. Hopefully he realized I was just playing. If not, I could just fly for a guard.
He extended his wings to make himself look huge. I knew this trick, for my wingspan was actually bigger than his. I screeched impatience, and he stumbled forward, holding his wings out still, in an effort to frighten me.
One of the advantages of being part-snake was a fluidity of motion that was nearly impossible to predict. Using this, I caught him off-guard with a quick lunge that sent him reeling backwards, stunned but unharmed. Samka caught on quickly to my fighting style, however, and I couldn't get near enough to hit him again. Instead, I lifted myself into the air, catching nearly unsupportive wind currents to take me to the door. I landed on the ground, only to be knocked over by a mass of black feathers. He had followed me, trailing my pattern on the air. We tumbled now, each trying to get a decent hold on the other without injuring him.
I vaguely heard the door hinge open, and Mother's worried cry suddenly pierced the room. A golden hawk joined the fray, and I immediately drew back in surprise. Samka was just as taken as I was, and he retreated to the far corner of my bed at the sigh to her majestic presence. She shifted, and stormed over to the bed. Before she could do anything, however, I shifted in pure panic at what she might be planning, "No!" I stumbled to my feet, slightly weary after our roughhousing, "He was just playing! I started it!"
Mother paused, uncertain, "How do you know he was just playing?"
"He hasn't purposefully tried to bite me since I took him in," I argued, "He only bit the guard because he thought I was in danger. He was playing."
"He is wild."
I felt my eyes widen, "Mother! He's part of your people! He's Father's people also! He's not wild!" Unintentionally I had spit the words at her. Whether Samka knew it or not, he had just been insulted deeply. It didn't matter if he felt it or not, I felt it for him. "Just because he cannot shift doesn't make him uncivilized!" Black feathers began forming in my hair, and running over my clenched fists. How dare she? She of all people should know who was uncivilized! Her family had fought a war for centuries, with no meaning of provocation that could be recalled. Warriors were uncivilized, not a black hawk who had no family to speak of, or could not shift.
Her face drained of anger slowly, and she turned her back on the quaking bundle of feathers at my pillow. I walked over and lifted him carefully, and I held him as he tried to stop shaking. "I see you are feeling better," Mother remarked pleasantly. I nodded. "Are you well enough for a journey to the Keep?" Again I nodded. "Your Father leaves tomorrow." The unspoken hint was evident. I was to leave with Father. Mother would fly after us, leaving a day head start for us. I was not to shift, but to ride out with Father. Even though I was a bird, Mother was uncomfortable around my animal form.
My fingers laced through Samka's feathers, gripping them tightly. The poor bird pretended not to notice. Mother left my room, and closed the door gently behind her. I walked to my window and stared out, absently stroking a perturbed Samka. He shuffled his feathers and jumped from the crook of my arm. He clambered up my shoulder, using my sleeves for claw-holds, and sat on my shoulder. "You're heavy," I murmured, not really caring but just speaking for the sake of speaking. He rubbed his head against my cheek, and I allowed my black feathers to meld with his in gratitude.
My father was greeted cordially if not warmly by the avian people, with a small parade to the Keep. In the twenty years since the war had ended, they had learned to respect him, though most still refused to like him. I would have felt pride, riding alongside of him, had the avians not been staring so blatantly at Samka on my shoulder. Suppressed whispers passed through them, but were stopped in the offending throats as my mother alighted Father's shoulder.
Once inside the Keep, as I sought my room, I overheard Rei talking to Mother, "Not another child, is he?"
"No, no, don't be silly," Mother's voice was terse, "Iza found him somewhere. The bird is a cross, however. I want to know if we have any records of crosses…"
I walked until I could not hear her anymore, throwing open the door to my room. The soft glow of gold and brown contrasted gently to the sharp black and silver of serpiente art. I couldn't decide which culture I liked better. The serpiente were loud, full of expression, and beautiful. The avians were reserved, more relaxed, and more solitary. Serpiente people knew how to have fun, and the avians were a welcome rest. Luckily, I did not have to choose. Technically, I was of both, yet I belonged to neither.
Samka took to exploring his new surroundings as I threw myself on my bed. Occasionally he let out a pleased caw, having found something amusing. I lay back and closed my eyes, tired from the long trip.