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Loud, persistent shrieking woke me in the dead of the night. I blearily clawed out of sleep, forcing myself to sit up. I was still in traveling clothes, and something hard jabbed at my waist in various places. I assumed it was my belt. Before I could confirm it, however, more shrieks split the air. I clapped my hands over my ears as Samka plummeted into my lap, dropping from the air above me.

"Samka, what-" I was cut off by a sharp blow to my jaw that sent the world twirling. Caught completely off-guard, I lost my balance and tumbled from my bed, hitting my head on the floor as well. White dots flew to my vision and I blinked them back, trying to determine what exactly had happened. Samka yelled again, hurtling into the air above me.

"Someone shut him up!" hissed a voice.

"N-No…" I mumbled, my mouth full of carpet. My head pounded worse than my hangover. If they hurt Samka…

He plopped to the ground beside my head, his dark feathers nearly blending with the earthy brown of the carpeting. His tiny breast rose and fell rapidly, and his eyes were wide with fright. I reached out and brushed his soft pelt.

A hand grasped my shoulder roughly and spun me onto my back. There was no light, but the outline above me was clearly a man, broad-shouldered and bearded. He pressed a calloused hand hard over my mouth, nearly cutting off my breath. He took a knife from a side-sheath, the blade glinting in the absence of light. He touched the tip of the blade to my temple and flicked the handle, setting a tiny cut that bled slightly.

White-hot fire entered my blood, more painful than anything I had ever felt before. As the man pulled his hand away, I sucked in air, clenching my teeth hard against the hurt. I tried to yell out, but nothing happened. I could not speak. Twisting didn't help, and when two people tried to hold my down, I fought, flailing my arms and legs viciously, trying to find a voice to yell. Gods it hurt! I wanted nothing more than to pass out, or to die. But Samka… who would watch him? It burned… my body was on fire! Oh gods…

I weakly flipped onto my stomach and reached out for Samka. I pulled him close, burying my face in his feathers as tears of pain formed in my eyes. Then, it all stopped.

I was dreaming. That was the only explanation there could be. I had to be dreaming. My eyes refused to open more than halfway, and I was lying down. I felt light, almost as if I was floating without the effort of beating my wings. The room around me was fuzzy, and there was a rather good-looking young man kneeling in front of me.

Cool fingers brushed hair from my eyes, as I heard my own teeth chatter for some reason. "You've got feathers…" I heard myself say. Indeed, this dream-figure had patches of decidedly black feathers scattered about his bare chest and arms. The dream faded to black again, and how much time passed I'm not sure. When I awoke finally, my body was racked with intense shivering, as another fever raked my system.

"Oh gods…" I managed between shaking teeth. I was so cold now. I almost wished for the heat of the poison. I found myself on my side, and I tipped over to lie on my stomach. My hands were bound tightly behind my back. It hurt to move, but it was better than being dead. The knife must have had avian poison on it. I couldn't believe I was still alive; a mere nick was enough to kill a snake.

"Ah, the Prince is awake."

I didn't move, mostly because I ached everywhere, but also because I was shaking hard enough to make the floor quake. "Here's your meal, bird-boy." A plate clattered to the ground by my head, hitting me with flecks of something. Footsteps meandered away, followed by a door clicking shut. The stench of the food was nearly enough to make me retch, and I turned away from it as best I could. Then suddenly, I remembered.

Samka.

I opened my eyes and let them take in the room. It was completely bare save a tiny cot and the door. No windows, not vents. It was small, not at all like the spacious quarters I was used to. Then, I found the pile of black feathers resting at my feet.

"Samka…" I whispered, my voice catching awfully in my throat. The bird was up in an instant, and he waddled to my face. I wanted to tell him about my dream, because my mind had conjured an image of him as a human, but I couldn't speak. I was too weak. The poison had ravaged my body, and left me helpless. I doubt I could have shifted to escape my bonds.

The hawk moved forward and pressed his head against my neck, rubbing back and forth as if he would run a hand along my skin in comfort. I pulled my head closer to my body, pressing my face into his warmth. It was so soothing to have him near. I couldn't explain it, but he made me feel so at ease. If I had been alone, I probably would have panicked. I had never been kidnapped before, much less attacked with avian poison, which had been outlawed at the end of the war.

"Touching." The voice was harsh with sarcasm, and I twisted to see who had spoken. A serpiente stood over me, glowering. "Are you through?"

I wanted to tell him a million curses that ran around in my head, but I couldn't gather enough breath for any of them, "Bite me." Short, sweet, and to the point.

"Don't mind if I do, young stupid Prince," the man grinned, revealing his sharp viper's teeth, "But for now, you must remain alive, sadly."

I scowled, trying to stop shivering. I refused to appear weak before the enemy. Samka released a warning cry, to which the man smiled, "You should thank your feathered friend- he's the reason you're not skinned right now." I made a mental note to remember that. He stood, with a last hateful glare back at me, and stalked from the room, slamming the door behind him with resounding force. Using what was left of my strength, and a little help from Samka, I rolled over to the door and lay there, panting. Just outside, there was talk.

"Is he up?"

"Yes."

"Now what?"

"We wait to see what his prissy mother does when she finds the note."

I was ransom! I scowled, and turned to Samka. "You need to go for help. Can you fly?" He nodded. "The next time someone comes in, you go. Don't worry about me." I thought I heard him coo disagreement, but I knew he was intelligent enough to see how serious my situation was. "It's a long trip," I breathed, "But I know you can find the way back. Don't get hurt, please." I didn't know what I'd do if he was hurt trying to help me. I didn't want to think about it; thinking about the worst always initiated bad omens.

Unexpectedly, the door opened. Like an arrow, Samka shot out the door with the speed of a bird and the agility of a snake. "Someone catch him!" bellowed my captor, "The bird! Catch him!"

My heart pounded its way into my throat as the irate man stood in the doorway. Would he make it? Then, the man's face reddened in fury and he whirled on me. "You!" He stomped over to me and delivered a swift kick to my stomach. I gasped, suddenly unable to breathe. Spots danced in my vision, and the world blackened for a moment. Inhaling desperately, I tried to focus on my captor. "Now that your pet is gone, you're alone," he sneered, kneeling beside me. "Completely alone. And, now we're going to have to move. Didn't I tell you to behave?"

"Can't… remember…" I growled, earning a cuff to the ear. My head hit the floor with force, allowing the world to tilt dangerously before my eyes. Something warm trickled from my temple, and I was fairly sure it was blood. He hit me hard again, sending an explosion of red in my vision before fading to black.

A jolt to my head woke me, sending a lightning shaft of pain down my spine. I groaned, and my head again hit the floor. I vaguely heard the creaking of wheels, and I could feel coarse wood under my cheek. Where was I?

Opening my eyes, I saw wooden walls around me, and a passing tree-line above them. I was in a wagon of some sort, passing through an all-too-familiar forest. In fact, there was the cliff where I had first met Samka. Samka… How long had I been out? It was almost sunset now, but that meant nothing. I could have slept a day, two days, three days…

"Boy," a foot nudged my ribs, sending sparks of pain through me. I hoped my ribs weren't broken, then again, if I was alive still they probably weren't. "Are you awake?"

I glared up at a man sitting in the cart bed with me. He glowered menacingly, "If you make a noise, or try to shift, you will be dead faster than you can breathe."

Considering I could barely breathe now, death would not have had to be fast.

The day passed into night without much fuss, and I found myself becoming very bored. I wasn't walking- I probably couldn't- so all I had to do was lie on my back and try to keep my head from hitting wood at every bump in the road. My body was very stiff from fever and bruises, and the shivering had not lessened yet. I couldn't down the meager bread they fed me, feeling more than slightly ill.

At every moment, a guard watched me with knife in hand. They made it a point to make it known that the blade was poisoned. I still felt the effects of the avian drug, and had no desire to relive them. So, stiff from the journey and fever, I allowed them to drag me from the wagon some time around midnight, not caring where they grabbed my wounded skin. As they jostled me, I could figure out by amount of pain if any bones had been broken. None. I guess that was a good sign, for a broken bone would have made my plight more unbearable.

I had just about given up the hope that Samka had gotten help. He wasn't able to shift, and Mother would sooner cage him than try to understand him. A dull, intangible ache rested in my chest as I thought about it. At least he was safe, granted he made it out unharmed. I wondered if he had run to the Keep, or just retreated to his home in the woods. Maybe I had only imprisoned him. What if he hadn't become attached to me, and saw me only as a source of free food? My throat tightened at this thought. I was stupid for letting myself get attached to him. I had thought I could teach him to shift, so neither of us would be alone.

A hand pushed hard on my back, my guards dropping me as I pitched forward to the ground, my legs too weak to support me. The grass was damp and cool against the heat of my fever, and I didn't mind the wetness soaking my clothes. I didn't care anymore. I really didn't care.

I heard the sound of an arrow stretching against a bow, I closed my eyes and pressed my face against the grass. They wouldn't know they were granting my wish. They would think they were killing an innocent Prince. If they killed me now, they would still start another war. They really didn't need me alive, I wondered why they hadn't killed me when Samka had fled.

The talk around me hushed, as the kidnappers waited with bated breath to watch the execution of the Crown Prince. And then, suddenly, a screech of battle rang through the forest where we had stopped. The man with the bow was so startled he loosed his arrow, nicking my arm through my jacket and shirt. The pain was lost in astonishment when I opened my eyes to see the entire Royal Flight herding the kidnappers like cattle. Even more shocking, my dream-figure ran at me, dropping to his knees before me. Longish silvery hair glinted in the moonlight as he lifted me from the cold ground to untie my hands. He didn't have the conspicuous patches of feathers this time, though.

My hands were free, but I couldn't move them. I was too weak. That didn't seem to matter, as the solid-dream-figure pressed me to him with painful enthusiasm. He nuzzled his head in the bare skin where my shoulder met my neck, and I felt hot slickness of tears smear on my skin. I closed my eyes and relaxed, mainly because in my mind, he reminded me of Samka for some reason. Through a daze, I found myself lifted into the mystery man's arms, and hugged close to a rapidly beating heart. A cloak was draped over me, and in the newfound warmth I fell asleep.

It was so hot. I struggled out of the inky blackness of sleep, to awake gasping for breath. Once again, I was smothered under hundreds of blankets to fight off my fever. I sat up and threw back a couple layers, to lessen the pressure on my chest. Able to breathe now, I took in the familiar surroundings of my room at the Keep. It was such a comfort to be back in the glowing brown and gold.

One thing didn't fit, however, as I noticed a head of silvery hair resting on my bed. A young man only slightly older than myself was sitting asleep, his head and arms floating on my covers. It was the same man who had held me the night I was rescued, and the night I head dreamt during my kidnapping! Who was he?

My hand inched forward, to touch his intriguing hair, but before I could reach he awoke, lifting his head to stare at me out of stunning blue-gray eyes. I suddenly found myself unable to speak, locked in the intensity of his gaze. He moved from the floor to a chair, his slick motion hinting of serpiente blood.

"W-Who are you?" I choked out finally, starting to feel a bit panicked that my parents would leave me alone with utter strangers.

"You named me," a low, beautifully accented voice fell from his lips, shocking me even further. I named him? I've never met him before!

He reached out a trembling hand, and as I watched, a wave of black feathers shifted lazily up his arm. I gasped, unable to help myself, and jerked back, "Samka!" He immediately broke into a pleased grin. He was… He was human! "When did you… How…" I couldn't get the words out. Luckily, I didn't have time to before the door to my room opened. Mother came in, looking pale underneath her golden hawk's tan. Father trailed quickly after her, shutting the door behind him. Samka stepped back and allowed my parents to hug and pet me, making worried noised and sighs of relief. Finally they pulled back, and Samka took his place by my side, taking one of my hands into his cool palm. If they noticed, neither of my parents showed it. Father leaned against a bedpost and grinned, "Your little bird here was amazing." He recounted the story of how Samka had barreled into the Keep, squawking to raise the dead. As soon as he had made it to their private rooms, he landed on the floor and had tumbled into human form. After he had relayed then news, he didn't even wait for Mother's reaction, just shifted and flew back towards me. "Your mother didn't even have time to organize a flight," Father laughed, "She just shifted and called reinforcements while she flew." Mother inched an arm around Father's waist, smiling sheepishly.

"We were so worried about you, babe," she sighed, leaning wearily against her alistair. Not knowing what to say, I shrugged. "Well, thank the gods you're fine," she nodded, biting her lower lip, "Jezzi told us what you said to her, the day we left serpiente land. She feels awful. I think she's here now, actually-"

As she spoke, the door to my room flung open and Jezzi leapt at me, knocking me back into my pillows. Her arms squeezed tight around my neck until I could barely breathe. "Jezzi…" I managed, "Let go…" She quickly complied, sitting back on her ankles and thrusting out her lower lip.

"I'm sorry!" she gasped, tears dampening her fiery eyes, "I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have laughed at you. I should have listened to you. It's just that… the last attempt was eons ago, and, and, the guards would never ever do something as stupid as that, but they weren't guards, and… I'm sorry!" She buried her face in her hands, as her soon-to-be mate took her shoulders and lifted her gently from the bed. They retreated to a corner of my room, until the girl calmed down.

Mother looked more than slightly uneasy at the display, but said nothing. She touched my forehead, smiled, and then left my room with Father. Jezzi and her lover left also, wanting me to get sleep. I doubted I could find it, however, with Samka sitting in his human form.

"What did they do?" he asked after sever moments of silence.

"Who?"

"Snake girl and hawk man," he said, pointing to the corner where Jezzi had been, "They had their faces together."

I leaned back against my pillows, "Oh. I think you mean kissing. They do that a lot."

"Kiss?"

I wondered how far this conversation would go. I refused to explain the birds and the bees to the poor mix, but… I guess somebody had to eventually. "A kiss is something two people share when they love each other," I settled for a simple explanation.

"Love?"

Suppressing a sigh, I told myself that he was a mere child to our cultures. He had tons to catch up on, because he had lived in the forest his entire life. "Love is a feeling. It makes you sad when someone isn't around you, and happy when they are near. You want to touch them, hold them, just be near them," I wondered if I was getting through. All the while, his eyes held the same blank look.

And then suddenly, "Do you love me?"

Quite sure that I was now beet-red, I fumbled for an answer, "No. Well, not… Not in that way… Yes… Maybe?" Again, his expression never changed.

"I love you."

I started, telling myself that he was new to this world and had no idea what he was saying. Yet, some part of me wanted to believe him. I knew that I wanted to hold him, to protect him, to keep him from being alone, but the rational part of my brain screamed at me. He was clueless. Absolutely clueless. "Samka, you don't just… say something like that. It's very hurtful if you say it to the wrong person."

In response, he slipped from the chair and gracefully climbed onto my bed. He knelt over me, his hands resting at each of my shoulders, and bent down shyly, pulling back fractionally only once, before dipping all the way. His lips brushed mine gently, uncertainly. It caught me completely by surprise, and my breath halted in my lungs. When he drew back, I could barely think straight. I suddenly longed for his touch, yet I knew that he had no idea what he had just done. I wished he understood; I didn't want to take advantage of him. I couldn't. It wouldn't be right.

I sighed, "Samka…" The look on his face hurt me like a physical stab. He looked so lost, a chick fallen from his nest. "Love means you put the other above yourself. You never want to make them cry, only to make them laugh. It's very hard," why was I explaining this? He wouldn't understand.

"I do!" he pleased, clenching his hands into fists, "You named me! When bad men took you it hurt here," he touched his chest. "And when I found you, my eyes wet. Gold hawk said it was for love." Gold hawk- Mother. Had she comforted Samka? I still found it had to believe she had even listened to him about me. "You do not love me?" he sat back on his heels, his eyes glittering sadness.

I suddenly realized that I was the one hurting him. The reason I had tried explaining love to him was that I didn't want him to think my love was a toy. And yet, here I lay, all but rejecting him. Determined to stop this, I jerked into a sitting position and threw my arms around his neck, taking his lips captive under mine. My momentum knocked him over, but luckily we remained on the cushion of my bed.

I landed on his chest, feeling his breath rush out on the impact. I let my mouth work over his, much more forcefully than he had touched minutes before, and he wrapped his slender arms around my neck, lacing his fingers through my hair. Everywhere we touched, fire rose under my skin, and I needed more. I didn't want him to leave me. I had to be closer, I had to hold him forever.

One of us had undone the clasps on both our shirts, but I really didn't know who. Bare chests meshing, I could feel the thunder of his heart against my own ribs. It was like we were one. We moved and breathed at the same time, touched and kissed identically. I feared distance; it was a sign that he might leave. He didn't seem willing to go just yet, to my joy, as his arms tightened around me.

The silver in his hair was cool to touch, though near his forehead it was matted with sweat. My lips traveled down his exposed neck, brushing against silky feathers at the back of his throat. He was of my kind. I was not alone anymore, and as I tasted his salty tears, I knew he realized this also. His chest caught on a choked sob, and I kissed his temple, "Shh… You're okay… I'm here…" Again, his lips touched mine desperately.

"Oh my."

An amused voice snapped through my consciousness, and I jerked up to stare at the newcomer, red-faced and panting. Jezzi had returned, her eyes red from crying but slightly more composed. I instantly relaxed; having feared it was my parents or the guard.

She moved closer, taking a chair next to the bed, "Do continue."

I blinked, in the middle of climbing off Samka, "Excuse me?"

"Go on, don't let me burst your fun," she grinned pleasantly.

"Jezzi," I sighed, drawing a hand across my forehead, "He doesn't know you're joking.

"But I'm not joking," she innocently smiled.

"Very funny," I growled, hoping my tone would give her the hint- end of discussion. Surprisingly, she did get the message and instantly changed the subject.

"Samka, we've figured out who your parents are."

He sat up, looking to me then to Jezzi, as if unsure what to do.

"You father was an avian, one of the Royal Flight, and your mother was a snake. Your father was charged with treason, for cavorting with the enemy, because your mother was found with child during the war. He was put to death, and your mother was exiled," she stared at Samka, "That makes you about nineteen, according to the records."

"You have lived nineteen years," I explained, seeing his puzzled face.

"Too bad your mother's not alive," Jezzi sighed, "she must have had beautiful hair."

I grinned and drew Samka close, touching my lips to the silver, "Yes. But if she was alive, I might not have met him." He tipped his head up, and, not knowing the meaning of discretion, licked at my lips hungrily. I fell back under his weight, feeling rather than seeing Jezzi's pleasure. Pleasure at what exactly I couldn't be too sure of, whether it was me seeing happy, or her ability to watch.

"Sam-" I opened my mouth in protest, but apparently Samka had been waiting for that. His tongue plunged into my mouth, and to my horror, I let out a low moan. I couldn't help it. It just… happened. Jezzi laughed, and out of the corner of my eye I saw her leaning forward eagerly, elbows on knees. I freed my face, and Samka took my neck instead. "Jezzi," I urged, flicking my eyes to the door.

"I'm sorry," Jezzi grinned wickedly, "I can't do a threesome. Haru's waiting."

"Jezzi!" I growled, waving a hand at her. She laughed and stood, exiting the room and shutting the door firmly behind her. Now alone, I took Samka and kissed him fiercely. He moved like a child under my touch, his eyes lighting joyously and his fingers curiously probing every inch of my upper body. And then, he tweaked my ear with his tongue, drawing a small gasp from my lungs. I pulled back, rubbing my ear, "Have you done this before?"

He grinned and shook his head, rocking back on his heels. It was then I noticed he was in a pair of my serpiente pants. Being serpiente, they were designed for three purposes- style, comfort, and ability to be shed.

Fast.

"But your heirs!" was all Father had to say when I told him.

Mother, being pure avian, looked at it logically, "Well, he can't be Alistair with either serpiente or avian, and there are no other crosses that we know of. And unless we'd rather wait to see Jezzi's baby, who will be Iza's second cousin, mind you, I'm afraid we have no choice. Babe, I'm glad you found arms to belong in." And that was that. The avian court was not to be told, for fear of a mass fainting spell. The serpiente took the news rather well, though still smarting from the kidnapping incident.

It had been discovered that while the nappers had been pure serpiente, they had received aid from inside the Keep. Inquiries were still taking place, Rei leading them. Later, I would wonder why we weren't moved out of the Keep for safety. But at the moment, it didn't even occur to me. Mother wanted to be near her family and friends for a while longer, and I needed to rest.

It was hard to get Samka to understand that we couldn't touch in public, especially in the avian culture. At first he had been hurt, and had sulked for a few days. But we made up, and he understood better now.

One night, I was in my room alone, and Jezzi came in. "Babe," she greeted me with a nod and sat on my chair.

"Do you need something?" I asked, stripping off my shirt to prepare for bed.

"No. I just wanted to see you," she sat back in the chair, completely the cobra. Her garnet eyes flitted around the room, taking in every shadow.

I was used to such admissions from her; the need to be near me, touch me, see me. It didn't bother me any more. What bothered me was the lazy way she had situated herself, like a snake ready to strike. "Jezzi?" I asked, turning to her.

"Shh," she hissed, her fangs growing behind her pale pink lips. I froze, my hands in the sleeves of my nightshirt, caught in the act of sliding it on. Quickly I scanned my room. Nothing moved save the light, translucent curtains that hung at the window. The shadows cast about the room were as familiar as the room itself. Whatever had Jezzi so worked up must have been important, though, as she slunk out of her chair to seemingly wander the room. I knew she was examining every corner, but to one who didn't know her, she was lazily playing with the scenery. She lifted a sharp implement off my dresser, tossing it lightly, dangerously, in her hands.

When she had finally stopped pacing, she looked at me. "Iza, I have a bad feeling about this."

The door to my room opened, and the only thing that saved Samka was his snake-like agility. Jezzi had hurtled my trinket at the door, aiming for the intruder's head. There was a flash of silver, as Samka jerked his head back and the calligraphy pen embedded itself in the doorframe. Jezzi squeaked, realizing what she had done, and jumped forward, "Samka!"

"Jezzi!" I yelled, my heart in my throat. She had nearly killed Samka, "What the hell are you doing!"

"I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" she wailed, running her hands over Samka's head, to make sure he wasn't injured, while he squirmed to get out of her grasp. She relinquished him to me, and I kissed his temple reassuringly.

"What are you doing?" I asked again, glaring at her.

"I'm sorry," she repeated, running a hand through her hair in agitation. "I… I have a bad feeling. I don't think you should be in here tonight," she flicked her eyes to the window, then strode over to shut it. "Keep this closed," she ordered, before leaving my room.

I stared after her, then turned to Samka, "Are you okay?"

He nodded, sliding an arm around my waist.

"Do you still want to sleep here?" I asked, chilled from Jezzi's attitude.

Again he nodded, this time with a confused look on his face. Able to read him by now without having to hear him speak, I replied to his unspoken question, "Jezzi is worried someone might be in the room. Do you feel safe here?"

He pulled me close, "If you are here, yes." I drew him to the bed and pulled him down on me, letting my hands rest on his waist. He stared at me affectionately, a small smile touching his lips. He kidded my forehead tenderly, and then rested his head on my chest. How long we lay together I don't know, but I awoke in the middle of the night to a scuffling sound in my room. Samka's body pressed heavily against me, so it wasn't him. The noise stopped. Did I imagine it? Had I dreamt it?

Then, I saw a flash of gleaming silver that disappeared near me at the same moment that Samka's body jerked roughly. He awoke with a yell of pain, startling in the silence. His hand flew to his side, pressing hard.

"Samka, what is it?" I hasped, watching him in panic as he gasped for air. What had that flash been? Was there someone else in my room? Something warm dripped onto my hip, directly below where Samka held his hand. I jerked up, but Samka shoved me back down by pressing himself against me, as another glimpse of silver whisked over us, close enough to Samka's head to rustle hairs. We were under attack.

I wrapped my arms around Samka and rolled over, flinging us both off the bed opposite to where the silver had come from. Shielded by the bed, I leaned over and pried Samka's hands from his side, to reveal an avian knife embedded deeply in his skin. "Hold tight," I grimaced, putting his hand on my shoulder. I gave the horrid thing a yank, drawing it messily from his body. He made no noise, and his grip on my shoulder was painful, but I knew that if the knife had poison on it, he was in worse agony.

I made him lay straight, pressing firmly on the wound to make it stop bleeding. No matter how hard I pushed, however, it didn't seem to halt the flow of his warm life over my fingers. "Please stop, please stop," I murmured, wondering if it really mattered with assassins in the room. Even if I could stem his blood-loss, they would kill us anyway. He gripped my wrists with bruising force, as if holding me would stop his pain. His teeth clenched hard, as sweat beaded around his temple. What I would have given to take on his suffering. It was almost a physical jab to see him twist in pain.

The scuffling in my room increased, and squeaking of springs let me know someone had mounted my bed. Knowing that this might be the last thing I ever did, I stretched protectively over Samka and screamed, "JEZZI!" In the silence, my voice raked the room, making the assassins pause momentarily. It wasn't enough time for anyone to reach me as the person on my bed jumped forward and brought a knife blade into my back.

The first sense I recovered was touch. Something warm pressed against me, someone's breath swept across my neck. A dulled pain sat in my back, probably where the knife had gone in. I knew that if moved it would hurt, badly.

Next, I was aware of someone crying around me. I could hear rustling of fabric, and the soft murmur of people whispering. Also, I could hear the beating of another's heart, beside me. Without even opening my eyes, I could tell Samka was next to me, his arm tossed protectively over my waist.

I flicked my eyes open just to be sure, and was greeted by a head of silvery hair. Had I enough breath, I would have sighed in relief. He was alive.

"Aunt, he's awake!" Jezzi's voice arched, clear as a bell, in my ears. I turned my head slowly, to see her and Mother leaning over me. Aunt Irene stood slightly behind them, comforting Father.

"Hey…" I whispered, hoping my smile had succeeded.

"When you become king," Jezzi stated, her cheeks flushing angrily, "You shall be called Iza the Idiot!"

I winced at Aunt Irene patted her daughter's head. Jezzi wasn't through, however, "I told you to keep the window shut, did I not? And what is the first thing I notice when I come to your room? The open window!"

I scratched back to my memories of that night, "But I didn't open it."

"Then who did?" she flashed.

"You didn't lock it."

The fire left her face quickly, as her hands flew to her mouth. Father suppressed a laugh and it came out like a cough. I grinned, my hand instinctively going for Samka's hair. Mother saw this, and spoke, "Samka will be fine, with lots of rest."

"And no horseplay," Father tacked on bluntly. I flushed as Mother raised her eyebrows pointedly at me.

"You, also, babe, need rest. And plenty of it," she turned to Father, "I want to have guards around our quarters from now on." When the war had ended, my parents had done away with the practice of placing royal watched over them. That was one of the reason it had been so easy to escape my room to go drinking. I didn't have a guard on me 24/7 like my parents had had.

Father nodded, "Iza, we did catch the avians in your room. They entered through the unlocked window, and, lucky for us, they hadn't been able to get hold of any poison. Just be thankful that Jezzi hadn't strayed far from your door." I glanced at her, to find her pale face streaked with tears. "I think it is safe to say that the last of this assassin group has been captured," he continued. I nodded. He reached forward and touched my forehead. I looked up at him, somewhat expectantly. What was he doing? He just stood there, staring at me with the strangest look on his face, as if he were seeing me for the first time. Then, he turned, took Mother's arm, and led her gently out of the room. Jezzi pecked my cheek before also taking her leave.

Samka sighed happily, and blinked his eyes open. Still quite fuzzy with sleep, he looked up at me, smiling softly. I shifted and, despite a sharp pain in my back, hugged him closer and kissed his forehead. With guards on me constantly now, I wouldn't have a chance to go drinking in the near future. Then again, I believed I had found the place where I belonged. I didn't think I'd be able to get stone drunk anymore, not with Samka near me. Gods know it is for the better.

fin