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It sounded like some sort of joke.

What do you get when you cross a hawk with a cobra?

Me.

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?

Me.

--Ariza Cobriana

"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?"

"Stiff."

"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?"

"Yes."

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?"

"The guards."

"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.

Chapter Text

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