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The Kiesha'Ra: Reprise

Chapter Text

Prologue

They say that before we gained our second forms we had an even more powerful magic. The stories told to us as children are full of beauty, power, magic, and wonder. It is said that once, the Dasi of old could summon rain or fire, could call upon the heavens and earth at a whim. The old thirteen who worshipped the dual powers of Ahnmik and Anhamirak were possibly the most magically powerful mortals in existence.

But then the creature appeared. He called himself Leben and demanded that Maeve worship him alone. Of course she didn’t agree, of course she found a way to protect her people. She seduced him. And he gave her – and all of us – our second forms, our longevity, seeming eternal youth. And he – however indirectly – damned us to thousands of years of war. A war that has taken so much from me, from all of us. My brother never returned last night. What must I do to end the slaughter?

Zane Cobriana
Arami to the Serpiente

Chapter Text

Chapter 1

I faded into the shadows as the avian princess and her guard entered the clearing, I knew it was the princess’ habit to wander among the dead and dying of both sides. I could only imagine what she gained from it. Perhaps she gloated over the dying Serpiente? Maybe she kept a private account of the dead. Most days she sang to the dying and wounded, held their hand and waiting with them for help to arrive - or death. Whichever came first. Either way it was my brother she knelt before, cried over, sang to.

It was all I could do to remain hidden when she pulled out the knife, even though I could not hear the words, I understood the emotion in my brother’s voice and face. He was asking the enemy to kill him. It was logical, he would not survive the wounds and the pain was likely to be excruciating, but I did not like the idea of this gilded statue of a woman ending the life of my last remaining brother.

An argument passed between the princess and the guard and it seemed my brother would die slowly and in pain after all, though not alone. I would rush to him the moment the princess and her escort turned their backs on a fallen foe. But no one made the move to leave. For five hours the heir to the avian throne, famed for emotionless reserve and icy poise, knelt in the blood and filth of the battlefield. For five hours the princess held the hand of a young enemy soldier as he died. For five hours Danica Shardae sang of a lifestyle that had been denied both of our peoples for millennia at least. Not once did she shrink from the scent of decay that now clung to her, and not once did she protest the surely uncomfortable position she must have been in.

Finally, as afternoon progressed into evening, my brother’s chest ceased to rise and fall. The princess stood and turned away, wiping her face clean of the tears she had allowed and gathering her poise about her like a cloak, and once again surrounded by her guards flew toward the heavily guarded Keep where the remnants of the avian royal family resided.

I waited a few minutes to ensure they were really gone before rushing to my brother’s body. The look on his face was almost peaceful; in fact he wore the look of pure infatuation I had seen on him in the past. I suppose it was not surprising that a dying man – boy – would, in his final moments, come to love the woman who comforted and eased his suffering, but something in my chest objected to the subject of my dead brother’s ardor.

“Oh Gregory,” I whispered to ears long past hearing. “I wish I knew how to keep the promises that I made you.” Then I began the long task of bringing the body of the second to last prince of the Serpiente back to the palace – and our mother.

I had brought a horse and tied her to a nearby tree, far enough away not to panic or be discovered, but near enough that I easily carried my brother to her without feeling winded. Very gently, I hauled my brother’s body across the back of the horse and secured him in a way that I hoped would not distract or inconvenience the mare. Even walking beside the horse the journey home was not in itself long. The brief miles were stretched in my mind by my own grief and guilt, but I had not been walking long when I sensed a pair of my people in the woods.

Having instinctively changed into my half-form at some point during the day, I recognized both serpents by scent. They were twin white vipers, and the most trusted and highest ranking of the Palace Guard. I had begun a tentative courtship of Adelina, the female twin and a formidable sparring opponent, a few years ago and things had grown comfortable and serious. Adelina sensed us first and nearly propelled herself into me. Without restraint she kissed me hard on the mouth, in front of her brother. Something I’m sure the avian princess would never have considered doing. As an afterthought she regarded my mare’s burden.

“Gregory!” She gasped and her hand flew to her mouth as tears sprang to her eyes. Absentmindedly she stroked the corpse’s hair, almost like Danica had earlier before gently touching her heart then her lips with her left hand then “with gentle Brysh may you find rest,” she whispered, it was a type of prayer, one the white vipers had for the dead that was not shared within the rest of serpentine society. Throughout the exchange Adelina’s twin, Ailbhe had maintained a respectful silence. Now he spoke. “Sir, your mother sent us to find you. She worries.” Ailbhe always did have a knack for understatement. Likely my mother was frantic and grieving having feared the worst and already lost three children to this war.

“Thank you.” I didn’t know exactly what to say to my guard and lover’s brother at this moment in time, and so said nothing. “I should give her the sad news then.” Somewhere in the back of my mind a plan was formulating. Long ago I had promised my younger brother and sister that I would find a way to end this war, that they would know peace in their lifetimes. Other than employing a few reluctant avian spies, I had done very little to secure that bright future I had promised them as children. Now Gregory would never see it, but I could still make peace real for Irene.

Over and again in my head I ran through scenarios. Sometimes I killed the avian Tuuli Thea and her daughter in their beds, though my conscience struggled with Danica’s murder – she was not a soldier, she had not ordered any deaths, and from what I could tell was as unsettled by the constant destruction as I was. So no, I could not kill them in cold blood. Perhaps one of my spies knew something; one particular young woman had been close to the princess as a child and might be persuaded to impart some vital knowledge. Otherwise, my only other option was to employ outside assistance. My older brother had tried that with the Falcons, our ancestral cousins who now sided with the avians in this war. There was always the Mistari, I had already sent a messenger asking for advice and they’d agreed to meet with both sides of the conflict. I’d just need to send another messenger saying we accepted and were attempting to convince the avian royals to agree to meet us on their lands. Which, of course, required convincing the avian royals and their protectors that such a meeting would be to their benefit.

Before I had fully completed my plans we reached the stables just outside the Palace. My sister was stroking the neck of a roan gelding and trying not to look as if she had been waiting since dawn. “Irene?” I called gently, I wasn’t sure of she’d sensed us coming and didn’t want to startle her. She jumped in surprise anyway.

“Let me see him.” Irene demanded before the mare carrying Gregory had even been led inside. “I don’t care how bad it is.” With her arms crossed against her chest, feet apart and chin thrust in defiance, she looked so much like the little girl I remembered. I saw the girl who used to demand to be taken along when Anjay and I snuck out of the nursery at night. She was the trouble maker who always convinced Carson and Gregory to sneak out and follow us, the little girl who decided to teach herself to use a blade. Too bad there were no light hearted pranks or childish revelries to be had here. I nodded and stepped aside, my sister rushed past me and I could hear her begin to cry in earnest. Her little brother was dead. And this time it was my fault.

“Huh?” I asked stupidly, while I had been reliving painful memories, Irene had been pelting me with questions. Suddenly my train of thought from earlier caught up with me and I shushed my sister impatiently. “I’m thinking,” I told her holding up a single finger. The Mistari would not refuse us, in fact they had repeated their invitation several times in the last four years, if I sent a messenger to the Disa and Dio today, then another to the avians the day after Gregory’s funeral we could have peace before the month was out. It would be too late for my brother, but I could still keep my promise to my sister.

“Devin?” I called to a messenger boy who was almost always found near the stables. “I need you to take a message to the Mistari, tell them that we are accepting their invitation to a peace talk and have sent someone to the avians. Tell them we are sorry for the rush but are quite sure the avians will want to meet as soon as possible.” I dictated when the boy jumped to attention before me. I turned to Irene to explain, “The avian princess lost her brother in that battle as well, and I have it on good authority that she at least may be willing to negotiate peace.”

Devin had already disappeared and Adelina was staring at me incredulously. “How do you know they won’t just kill the messenger without waiting to hear the proposal?” She asked, in her straightforward way.

“I’ll go myself. I am more than capable of evading the incompetent guards the Tuuli Thea employs.”

“They’d kill you the moment you walked through the doors!” She protested.

So let them. Maybe then someone will be satisfied and this damn war will be over.” If that was what it took I’d be a willing martyr, but I hoped to live to see the goal I was working toward achieved. “If that is all, I have to go break my mother’s heart, again.”

I was halfway down the familiar path to my mother’s chambers when I heard light footsteps rushing after me. I turned, prepared for a fight, to find my sister looking stern and out of breath.

“You know, you have really long legs,” she commented as she pulled even with me. “It makes running you down difficult, especially if I give you a head start.” She grinned and swept some hair behind her ear.

“You could have called out or something,” I replied falling easily into our old habits. “So where’s the fire?” I teased before biting the inside of my cheek. Fire was a touchy subject with Irene.

“You’ll know if you go through with this suicidal plan of yours.” She retorted hotly. “Or is that what you want? Are you planning to leave mother and me completely alone?”

“What? No! Of course not, I’m just going to -” I attempted to explain before getting cut off.

“You are going to get yourself killed!” She interrupted. “You know they won’t stop to listen to you, they won’t even confirm whether you’re armed or not. You are the Arami to the Serpiente. They would be glad to get rid of you. And then what would your people do?”

“They’re your people too,” I acknowledged.

“But you are the one who has been leading them for the past few years. You’re the one they look to. No way am I letting you do it. I’m going.” The way she said it, I knew there was no arguing with her, not that I didn’t try.

Of course we had been walking as we argued and had been standing in front of my mother’s door for the last few moments of our discussion, nonetheless we both jumped in surprise when the heavy wooden door opened and my mother asked “Going where?”

We both turned to look at her guilty and ashamed. It was obvious she already knew about Gregory, doubtless she had guessed when he hadn’t returned for a night and day after a battle from which the wounded had long since limped away. She had lost another child, we had lost another brother, and here we stood arguing like children who both wanted the last pastry.

“Going where?” She repeated, sounding more like a stern matriarch than she ever had when we were young and always getting into trouble. I looked down at the familiar tone, but two fingers under my chin forced my eyes to meet hers. “Don’t make me ask again,” she warned.

Before I could answer, Irene did what could only be described as tattling. “Zane wants to personally deliver an invitation to a peace conference to the Tuuli Thea.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” To my mother I continued, “I already have an agreement with the Mistari, I just need to get the avians to agree to a meeting. And a royal’s the only messenger they’ll listen to.”

“I’m listening,” Mother said turning to Irene.

“They’d kill Zane on sight! But it is well known that I’m not a warrior, besides even an avian would hesitate before killing a woman in cold blood. Even if they suspect a trick they’d still hear me out.”

To my surprise my mother nodded and asked Irene when she was going to leave. I protested, Charis may be my mother, but according to Serpiente custom I outranked her.

“You aren’t honestly asking me to send my baby sister alone, unarmed, into the enemy’s headquarters. Are you?” I looked from one face to the other wondering if they had both recently gone mad or it had been so gradual that I only just noticed. Irene placed a hand on my arm and I suppressed the urge to shake it off and leave for the Keep immediately. Instead, I waited for her to say her piece.

“You know my arguments are sound. Besides, I’m a better negotiator than you are.” Instead of answering I turned to leave.

“I’ll speak to you again after Gregory’s service.” As I put distance between myself and my mother’s chambers I heard my mother and sister continue speaking as if they were having a pleasant conversation. I was sure I had lost this argument. Some king I’ll be.

When I reached my own rooms, Adelina was there waiting for me. Despite my initial misgivings, we had developed an intense emotional relationship as well as our physical one. There was something dark in her that unnerved me sometimes, but then there was hardly anyone alive that darkness had not touched. And Adelina comforted me like no other.

Afterward we held each other until sleep sent us to our own separate worlds. I had heard stories of lovers visiting each other in their dreams, it was said to be the mark of a truly intimate relationship. Adelina and I had been together for almost three years, and in that time the only ones to visit my dreams were the dead.

Gregory was berating me. I should have been the one on that battlefield, I should have taught him better, I should have kept my promise sooner, I should have avenged his death. I should. . .

My father smiled at me, I tried to curl into his arms as I had when I was a child, but the moment I touched his flesh the skin began to sizzle. He turned to ash in my hands.

Sisal wept, there was a bloody gash across her abdomen and her guts spilled onto the dirt in front of her. A tiny infant lay lifeless in my sister’s arms. I tried to comfort her but she didn’t notice me. I tried to pile her intestines back into the gaping cavity, knowing it would do no good. She shot an accusatory glare in my general direction, but did not look directly at me. “I was going to name her Hope,” Sisal whispered to no one in particular. My father and brother joined her, both bloated corpses now. As a unit the three turned to approach me, Sisal still cradling her murdered daughter.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

“Zane!” A female voice whispered frantically nearby. The voice was a familiar one but I couldn’t quite place her just yet. I was still trying to escape my deceased family. I gasped and opened my eyes, throwing myself forward.

Fully awake now, I looked for the source of the voice. There, beside me. White haired Adelina clutched a blanket to her chest; she was looking at me as if I had suddenly sprouted feathers. “What…?” I began with some confusion. I was not one to call out in the night.

“You were shuddering; it was like you had palsy or something. I was ready to call for a doctor.” She explained haltingly. “Dreams?”

Adelina knew that I had nightmares, but I had never described them to her. Rather than answer I asked what time it was.

“Just before dawn,” she replied. I rose and began to dress. Gregory’s funeral would be starting soon. I could at least be on time to my brother’s memorial.

I was not the first to arrive at the funeral pyre, nor was I the last by any means. Among those crowded near the front of the clearing were Angelise and Tristan, my brother’s personal body guards and closest friends. There had been some speculation as to Gregory and Angelise being more than mere friends, and now she was crying almost as hard as my mother. Tristan had been with Gregory on the field and only barely managed to make it alive. He was being supported by two fellow soldiers and looked as if even then he might not be able to make it through the whole service.

As the fire began to truly consume the body that no longer housed my brother’s soul, the other mourners faded into the shadows. Some were only giving the family distance; others leaving now that their parts were done. My mother and sister held on to me from both sides, we were engaged in a bizarre three-way embrace. The fire died out and we turned away to walk together toward the palace.

The service, which included all the other soldiers killed within the last two days, had lasted most of the day. The sun had set by the time I had escorted my mother and Irene back to their rooms. On the walk we had discussed our argument from the night before, still choked from my dreams, I allowed them to talk me into sending Irene in my place.

Rather than return to my own room – and Adelina – I decided to wander the market for a few hours. The market’s usual festive air was much subdued. We had lost more soldiers in that last battle than we had in other recent ones, almost everyone was mourning someone. Even the dancers were respectful and quiet. Aisha, the most irreverent of her guild, was performing a simple dance, one meant to illustrate the cycle of life and comfort those left behind. I watched for a few minutes, but disappeared into the crowd before the dance was over. I did not want talk to anyone just yet.

It was fully dark and the moon had just risen when I saddled one of my favorite horses, a strawberry roan. I had intended only to go on a short ride as I often did before bed, but before I realized it, Peony had started along the familiar path that led to the Keep. We had ridden this trail together often over the past four years and I saw no reason to turn around. Using my usual method, I was soon in the princess hawk’s private chambers.

One of the first things I noticed was that Danica was not sleeping well. She rarely did, at least when I was here. Perhaps I brought my nightmares with me. I was briefly amused by the thought of tormenting my beautiful enemy before I thought that perhaps she had reasons of her own for tossing and turning at night. I saw fresh tears on the golden maiden’s cheek tonight. Perhaps she cried in her sleep as her people would not allow her to in the daytime.

I sat and watched her for hours; the sky had lightened with false dawn before her dreams became truly disturbing. I could tell by the way her tears flowed without her seeming to notice. Once or twice I was sure she whispered a name, a fallen friend or relative? I would probably never know, or have occasion to ask.

I felt another presence on the other side of the door and moved to escape onto the balcony before I realized that Danica had stopped thrashing, I turned and saw that she was wide awake and frozen rigid, staring at me. She opened her mouth and shut her eyes. I swung over the balcony railing before she had even begun to scream. I gripped the climbing vines tightly and listened, waiting for Danica to inform the guard who had burst into the room that I had been there.

Instead, they had an exchange very similar to the one I’d had with Adelina so many hours before. Suddenly I was so very tired; it had been more that twenty-four hours since I’d slept last. Carefully, I climbed down the trellis and crept through the woods to the small clearing where I had left Peony. Making my way back to the Palace was more difficult than sneaking into the Keep had been just a few hours before. By the time I made it back, Irene had already left. Exhausted I crawled into my bed, glad that Adelina was out patrolling somewhere.

Rather than the usual nightmares that plagued me, especially after a funeral, I was haunted by dream of another sort. For the hours I spent unconscious, I had repeated visions of myself in various compromising positions with a certain avian. Had I been conscious I would have been confused, erotic dreams about a soulless bird? As it was, I marveled instead at the minute detail my subconscious had chosen to entertain me with. In between poses and tableaus I had other dreams, still starring Danica, but in a very different role. In these dreams, I saw Danica as the queen she would become someday soon, beautiful and controlled, but caring and wise. I dreamed she convinced her mother and a guard whose counsel was being sought to agree to my planned meeting with the Mistari. Her arguments were sound but, as it was in dreams, I thought I detected something in her that had not been present the times I had watched her in secret.

When I wasn’t dreaming of doing things to her that I doubt she’d ever heard of, I dreamed she was having a friendly conversation with Irene, learning to dance from Aisha, or playing with a russet haired toddler who was both familiar and completely alien to me. But mostly I dreamed of her calling out my name, and writhing with pleasure. Once I awoke I was a bit ashamed of myself.

Instead of dwelling on things I could not change, I went in search of breakfast. It was well past noon by then, so I had heavier food than I really liked in the morning. But of course I had eaten so little the day before that I ate more than I had anticipated being able to swallow.

I had just cleared away my dishes and gone in search of my mother when Irene nearly collided with me. She was flushed and a little sweaty from her run through the palace but she did not even stop to catch her breath when she recognized me.

“They agreed! We’re going. Go pack, we leave tomorrow!” She gasped between each word and did not wait for her exclamation to register before going in search of our mother. I’d get the full story later.

Rerouting to go shove a few changes of clothes into a rucksack I found Adelina glaring at me from her post outside my door. “Where were you last night? No one could tell me anything.” She accused before I had a chance to say anything to her. Her voice was harsh but her eyes were soft, she had been worried and now she covered her fear with anger. Adelina had always been unusual that way.

“I went for a ride,” I shrugged; I did not have to explain myself to my guard, even if she was also my lover. “You should pack; we’re meeting with the Mistari and avians as soon as we can get there.” Adelina stared at me with more surprise than anger now.

“How’d you manage that?” She demanded. Her tone was still somewhat accusatory.

“You’ll have to ask Irene. I intend to on the ride tomorrow.”

“When are we supposed to be there? It will take us two weeks. We won’t be there for a fortnight even if we leave right now!”

“No doubt the Tuuli Thea planned it that way on purpose. Now are you going to pack or are we leaving you behind? You and Galen are to be our only escorts. Unless you don’t want to go?” I was bluffing I knew Adelina would trust no one else to guard us for two weeks. Not even Ailbhe.

During the fourteen day ride into Mistari lands, Irene informed me of quite a few things. First she described the way Danica talked a guard, the one named Andreios she’d had with her the day Gregory died, and her mother into agreeing to the meeting. Irene’s tale was strangely similar to my dream, or at least the tamer bits. Even her ridiculous deadline was fitting with the scene I’d dreamt. But such things were heard of only in ballads and tales.

On the third day of our journey, after we’d set up camp for the night, Irene came to my tent to tell me of something else she’d discovered.

I looked up from polishing my already spotless dirk. I didn’t anticipate any fighting, but I liked to keep my weapons in perfect form. I hadn’t sought Adelina’s company since Gregory’s funeral and so I was surprised when someone clapped outside my tent. I could tell by the shadow on the canvas wall that it was my sister so I admitted her immediately.

She was pale, her already fair skin was drained of any color and her hands shook slightly. I’ve seen my sister worried, nervous, upset, and scared, but never had I seen anything like this outright terror. Not even when little Carson had died and she crawled in with me every night to make sure I was still there. Without hesitation I jumped to my feet, blade drawn, and pulled her further inside the tent.

“What is it?” I demanded while scanning for intruders. “What’s wrong?” Irene wheezed a strange sound, sort of like a strangled laugh that was choking on tears. “Are you hurt?” I knelt in front of Irene and grabbed her arms. I could see no injuries, there was no blood and she did not move as if in pain. “Did something happen with Galen?” I could find no wound, all was quiet in our little camp, and I could not think of anything that could upset my sister this badly. She was tough for all that she was a princess and had never received any warrior training. Though I supposed if she and her mate had quarreled badly enough she could be hurt and scared enough to come find me. But that still didn’t account for the abject terror written in her features. Unless. . . “Did he hurt you in any way?” I finally asked. I’m going to kill that-

“No it’s nothing like that,” Irene hastened to assure me, no doubt reading my own thoughts in my face. “I’m sorry for scaring you like that. It’s silly really. I should be happy not scared.” She laughed a little nervous laugh that did nothing to reassure me and words kept tumbling from her mouth. "It's a good thing. I think. Or maybe it will be if everything works out. It's just. Everything's so uncertain. I can't, I mean I want, but then." She was speaking too quickly and stumbling over words. She couldn’t keep her hands still, and if there was one thing the cobra was not, it was fidgety. Bouts of childishness aside, sometimes she was almost as reposed as a bird.

“Well, now that we’ve covered the list of what isn’t bothering you, let’s get to what is.” I suggested, lightly still concerned.

“Oh, right. Well I feel really stupid now. It’s almost anticlimactic after all of that.” She began; looking much calmer now. “I’m going to have a baby.”

My heart stopped. I stared at her uncomprehendingly. A moment passed, then two. I took a breath. “You mean?”

She nodded. “You’re going to be an uncle!” she exclaimed, trying to sound lighthearted. But now her fear from a moment ago entered me. I’d heard that exclamation before almost five years ago now. Our oldest sister, Sisal, had been gutted by an avian assassin for the crime of carrying a child with royal blood. That same blood flowed through the entire Cobriana line including myself and Irene. Not even a pregnant woman is safe during a war.

But hopefully the war would be over soon.

I was scared for my sister and unborn niece or nephew’s lives. But then I’d always been scared for the lives of those around me. Recently I’d been given less reason to worry than usual.

“Well, it’s a good thing we’re headed to a peace talk.” I answered finally. My attempt at light-heartedness was clearly not appreciated, because my sister punched me in the arm. Hard. And I’d thought she’d had no more than the standard practical self-defense lessons. “So, are you going to name it after me?” I asked with a smile.

"Yes. If it's a boy we plan to name him Jerk Face in you honor."

"That's Jerk Face sir, to you." I told her in the loftiest manner I could assume. This was an old game between us and it did nothing to mask our very real, adult fears and concerns.

“Zane, please be serious,” she requested in her most school-matronly manner. “I’m pretty sure we have nothing to be worried about. After all, Danica seemed perfectly rational and we are headed to peace talks. But what about after, what if the meetings don’t go well? What then?”

“We’ll take each day as it comes, just like we always have. And we won’t announce anything for a few months, even if the talks succeed.” She nodded, looking stronger and surer than she had in days. Now that I thought about it she’d been acting jumpy and strange for over a week. “How long have you known anyway?”

“I didn’t know for sure until today. I guessed about two weeks ago, but I couldn’t know that I wasn’t just stressing myself out. And I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up.” She fled my tent and returned to her own before I could ask her anymore questions. Or remember where babies came from. I knew logically that my sister and Galen were sleeping together. They were an officially recognized mated pair and had been together for two years before that. My species wasn’t the kind to sleep alone. Even the past two days have been hard on me; we needed physical closeness the same as we needed air or food. It came from our other sense. The one that detected – and some scholars believed fed on – the emotions and nearness of others.

It was one of the things that separated us from the avians other than our second forms. We thrived on touch, passion, even fleeting contact and the everyday range of emotions; they shunned them. So while I considered myself comfortable with the assumption that Irene was not sleeping alone, I was also a little appalled at the proof that someone had seen her naked, on several occasions.

Somewhat emotionally drained from my evening chat with Irene, I did not refuse Adelina’s company when she clapped outside my tent after her watch. Though we were both too tired for more than sleep, I found that I had missed her company, and awoke feeling better than I had in days. This was good because we still had the better part of a long journey in front of us and as if it sensed our knowledge, Irene’s pregnancy decided to make itself known in a big way. We travelled an agonizing thirty miles that day; stopping every half hour for someone to duck behind a bush is not the way to expedite a journey.

Two days later our pace began to pick up as we entered the flat grassy plains that surrounded the Mistari homeland. Feeling frisky, no doubt the slow pace had wearied them as well, our mounts decided to race off and on for the rest of the journey. As we were sure to be late to our own meeting, none of us complained. Not even Irene who was sure to feel every bump and jolt let on that she was anything less than pleased with our new pace.

As it was, we arrived in the outskirts of the capitol city of the Mistari a day ahead of schedule and had a chance to rest our horses and settle into our rooms. The Palace was a massive boulder that had been hollowed out and decoratively carved. Somehow even in this intense heat the inside of the building that housed the royal family was cool and airy. Legend said that the boulder was not in fact stone, but that it was a piece of a star that had fallen from the sky long ago. It was hard not to believe the tales when walking the halls carved from some iridescent material. Somehow the windows had been cut so that even the innermost hallways were lit by nothing more than a single torch in the corner where two passages met.

Once we had met the Disa and Dio and observed all the usual pleasantries of two groups of rulers meeting for the first time, we heard that the avian group had arrived ahead of schedule as well. Having arrived first we were given first choice of seating arrangements and chose a soft pile of cushions on the far side of the room from the door. This way we could see the other group as it entered. I made myself comfortable and watched as Danica Shardae, flanked by three guards and her mother, made her way into the dimly lit hall. I knew that it would take her an almost imperceptible moment to adjust to the change in lighting. She quickly scanned my companions with a dismissive air before inspecting me as fully as I had ever examined her.

I took in her outfit, comfortable clothes for travel that were also fine enough to be worn to a meeting with dignitaries, nothing flashy she wasn’t trying to impress us, but there was nothing slovenly or even casual about her appearance either. Her choice in clothing was interesting, light and airy, whatever the material was it draped like silk. The low back and short sleeves displayed muscular arms and a pleasing figure, her bone structure was very fine, she looked like I could pick her up with one hand. I probably could, avians had hollow bones in both their human and bird forms and the hawk was not bulky. She probably weighed as much as a twelve-year-old black mamba.

Catching my eye, and noting the direction of my gaze, the innocent princess colored prettily. I smirked imagining her reaction to her starring role in some of my recent dreams. One of her guards (the tall, dark haired young man who is constantly at her side) glared at me and removed us from each other’s eye line. I noticed the gentle way he gripped her shoulder and the fact that she didn’t even react when he touched her even though she flinched when one of the other guards came within easy reaching distance of her. Perhaps he is her mate or Alistair as the avians call them, I thought and revised my tactics.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

I could see Danica’s blush from across the room, and noticed that she touched her cheeks with the backs of her hands. It amused me to think I could affect her so strongly. I was already making plans to approach her, broach her mind and find out exactly how much power I had over her.

The Mistari Disa interrupted my thoughts and I turned my attention to her as she rose to welcome us. Already Galen and Adelina were grumbling, neither thought any good could come of us meeting with the avians and Irene and I had to glare at them just to quiet them enough to be able to hear the Disa. I suspected Irene kicked Galen, I saw him wince. She addressed my mother first, “Charis, you are Naga are you not?

My mother answered affirmatively and deflected attention to me. I was content to let her take charge of this meeting, but perhaps she felt that since it was my idea it was to be my show, so to speak. Had I been raised an avian, I was sure I would have been embarrassed to be asked the next question; they had some atrocious notions regarding love and mating.

I met the Disa’s eye and answered firmly. “Taking a mate in the middle of this war would be giving a woman a death sentence in return for her love. I’ve learned from experience that even a woman with child is not safe from the killing, not when she’s carrying a cobra’s blood.” My nightmare flashed through my mind again, only this time it was Adelina who had been gutted in an attempt to end the Cobriana line. The Disa stopped for a moment, no doubt startled by my words. The Mistari had never known the countless generations of hatred and bloodshed that had plagued Serpiente and avians alike. After a breath she nodded and turned to question the avian delegation. I watched in amusement as Danica turned a brighter red with each word the Tuuli Thea and Disa exchanged. Why would succession be such an embarrassing topic? I wondered. It wasn’t until Nacola Shardae had launched into some rambling explanation of why Danica was going to be queen “soon” that I remembered a strange fact I had heard mentioned somewhere. The avian Tuuli Thea ascended the throne when she’d had her first child. Though she would be little more than a figurehead until the child had been weaned and turned over to servants and maids to raise. The little hawk was embarrassed because they were speaking of pregnancy and childbirth. I noticed the crow who guarded her also colored a little. He was not her Alistair then, but he wanted to be.

The Disa nodded again, taking in the entirety of our situation with only the few words we had spoken. She was not considered the wisest of the wise for nothing. So I was surprised when she asked a question to which the answer seemed obvious. Why did we need her help? I answered immediately. “Even if every one of us wants peace, our people would rather fight than be taken by surprise. Among my own guards,” I quickly glanced at Adelina before continuing. She had spent most of the week complaining about how this was a waste of time and possibly even a trap, “there is strong doubt as to how far we can trust the avians, and among my people there is even speculation as to why I would want to make peace.”

The Disa looked to Danica next, she seemed slightly uncomfortable with her role as leader of the avian delegation, though it was probably my imagination since avians never displayed feelings, that is if they felt them at all. “We were barely able to control our soldiers the last two weeks. They don’t believe the Serpiente can be trusted, and unless we either give them permission to fight again, or we find some way to convince them that the Cobriana family and their people really want peace, my mother and I won’t have the power to keep them from going against us.”

I raised an eyebrow as the princess spoke. How could they allow their soldiers so much power over them? The Disa and Dio conferred for a moment on their dais and though they tried to be discreet, I caught a few words here and there.

The Dio paraphrased our explanations of moments ago and asked, quite mildly, what we were willing to give. The hawk princess answered “anything” just a breath before I could say “everything.” I was thinking of all the bloody battlefields I had seen, all the friends and comrades I had left behind on those fields all the weeping mothers at the funeral grounds and all the proud young soldiers who never saw a second battle. I was really and truly willing to sacrifice any- and everything to never have another dead friend or relative berate me in my dreams.

When you have hatred you need to start at the heart to mend it. Similarly, when you have a rift between people as great as you have, the only way to bridge the gap is to start at the center.” I felt I caught a bit of the meaning behind the words, the Disa was about to suggest something that no one here would agree to. Despite my hope for peace, I doubted I could be civil to the avians, much less friendly.

Still I was shocked by what was announced next. The Mistari Disa, wise woman and leader of infamously peaceful people had just suggested that I take Danica Shardae as my mate in order to end a millennia old war. The room turned to chaos. Guards and mothers jumped to their feet and yelled. Someone said, “I think that’s an absurd idea,” quite loudly. I was surprised to find that the voice was my own. Also surprising was that I had not heard Danica utter a single complaint. In the midst of all the turmoil, she was a serene island. Danica looked horrified, and why shouldn’t she? But she did not argue or color. She just sat as her party argued around her and stared at nothing with wide eyes.

Quite abruptly we were thrown out of the chamber and lead to our rooms by polite but firm Mistari servants. Or guards, it was hard to tell. Once we returned to the rooms granted to us by the Mistari I kissed Adelina to reassure her of my unwillingness to follow the Disa’s suggestion. As soon as she left for guard duty, even here she did not trust anyone else with my safety, I crept away in search of the avian princess. It was child’s play to slip past the Mistari guards; they were clearly foreign to the notion of assassins. Though even if a fighter slipped past the guards, a tiger was hard to kill even caught unaware. The avian guards were more watchful, but they trusted their hosts. It also didn’t hurt that as long as I moved slowly my scales blended perfectly into the dark shadows where black stone wall met black stone floor. Someone should alert the Mistari to the weakness of their defenses.

I had made it unnoticed into Danica’s room but she shuddered and turned before I had even begun to return to my human form. Even a sleeping mouse wakes and knows when a cat is nearby. I was pleased to find that Danica had not changed out of the simple outfit she had worn during the meeting; I knew from experience that her sleepwear was much less exciting.

“What do you want?” she demanded quite rudely. I was surprised, she usually screamed when I appeared out of the shadows. But then, I suppose she felt secure in the temporary truce we were under. Partly to assuage her fears, and partly because I was tired I threw myself at the pillows that littered the floor of her temporary room.

I decided you and I should talk,” I informed her in a whisper. Any louder and I would alert her guards to my presence. I wasn’t quite ready to be forcibly removed from her presence. “Sit down, Danica. I’m not going to ravage or bite you or whatever it is you’re thinking.”

She gracefully folded her legs beneath her and sat much closer to me than avian custom allowed. She was still far enough away that I could just barely hear her heartbeat. Danica’s eyes, a dark gold, had dilated to the point that there was hardly any iris visible and her breathing was rapid. Her fight-or-flight response was kicked into high gear. As entertaining as it was to watch her bosom rise and fall, I forced my attention to her face.

Talk?” she asked hesitantly.

We were thrown out of the Mistari hall quite abruptly,” I reminded her, “and in all likelihood the same will happen tomorrow unless we have some discussion prior.”

Continue,” she allowed slowly no doubt wondering as to my intentions. Something I should have figured out beforehand. Stalling I decide to start with something inconsequential.

Did you know there are four guards outside your door, Danica?” She didn’t just look surprised, she looked disbelieving. “I thought not. The Mistari added their own people to yours. They’re all incompetent really, or I wouldn’t be here, but it would have been tricky to catch you alone tomorrow. And since you’re the only one in your group who demonstrated any sense, you seemed the one to talk to.” The hawk just barely avoided rolling her eyes at me. She impatiently bade me to continue.

What is it you want to talk about?”

“About life and about death.” I answered lightly, not giving her a chance to reply. “About the fact that my people mean more to me than anything else, and I would do almost anything to end this foolish war. I want to talk about the world, and most specifically, about you.”

“Me?” she seemed surprised, but then what else would I have wanted to talk to her about?

I sighed, I may not like the idea, but if the Mistari thought it was worth merit then I would at least talk about it. “Of course you. If the Mistari Disa’s proposal is even to be considered, I would like to know what I would be getting myself into.”

“I believe you already expressed your opinion on the subject,” Danica lapsed into a bored and formal sounding tone. I was impressed; if it weren’t for my kind’s other abilities I would have thought she felt nothing at all about me or the Mistari’s proposal. I was also a little bit flattered that she had even noticed my reaction in the midst of all the outbursts.

And I believe my first reaction is probably still correct. It is an absurd idea, but that is no doubt why it has never been tried.” I could see minute changes in her facial expression though I couldn’t quite place the exact feeling. “I’m not saying I’ll go along with it,” I reassured her hastily, before continuing, “but it does have some potential.”

And what exactly do you think you are ‘getting yourself into’?” She asked coldly, wrinkling her nose in distaste. Something about her utter disdain for me made her even more appealing. Clearly, I am a masochist. But still, the hawk princess was not unattractive.

The better part of an hour passed with me in Danica’s room. Our conversation was part flattery, part intimidation, and part subtle threat. I took especial pleasure in revealing to Danica just how exposed she was, even in her own room. And it was a lovely room, with handcrafted silk pillows, and an oaken chest that sat at the foot of her bed; even her draperies were heavy and luxurious. I had just finished describing her own most personal room to her when she finally asked the most obvious question.

How?”

“I’ve been there, I’ve seen it. The Hawk’s Keep isn’t the easiest place in the world to sneak into, but I have a talent for such things.” I bragged mildly, watching her shock and confusion drift slowly towards fear. I’m sure she now felt quite violated as well. “I nearly got myself caught the first time, trying to figure out how to get to the first floor, but luckily avian guards don’t often look up for an enemy. From there, there are servant staircases. You don’t even keep your door locked, Danica.” I informed her in a chiding tone. Really, if I had wanted to kill her, ending her life could have been so simple any of the numerous times. I had even steeled myself to do so on several occasions. I gestured as I spoke and on occasion found myself touching her cheek or smoothing her hair. It seemed that Danica was too enraptured by my words to protest the intimacy of such a gesture. Still I continued my story.

Of course Danica didn’t want to believe me, she even stated as much and I was forced to describe my first visit to the sleeping princess’ sanctuary. I didn’t tell her about my sister’s murder, but rather my brother’s death when he stormed into the keep to avenge her. “For your birthday, my brother died.” I did not say the words accusingly, as I would have even a few weeks ago. I understood now that she’d had about as much to do with my loved ones’ deaths as I had with hers, less even since she was neither a warrior nor the one who made decisions. Then came the part I was dreading, she asked me why I hadn’t killed her.

I still did not know exactly why I had not killed her that first night, or any of the other nights I had visited her since. I told myself that I was not a killer, not really. I told myself that I would not murder someone in their sleep, in cold blood. I had justified, telling myself that she was not a warrior. But when it came down to it, I simply could not kill her. This one woman who would soon be the driving force behind every enemy I faced, and I was too smitten with heartless, superficial beauty to save countless warriors from a needless death.

But then, maybe she wasn’t so heartless. I tried to explain in the least incendiary terms I could. I described what I was feeling that night, the way she had looked, the way I’d felt looking at her, but somehow the words weren’t quite right.

Why are you telling me this?” She asked in a far away voice. I knelt before her and heard her gasp in surprise. Of course her position would not allow her to jump away from me. I decided to just speak the words I’d been unable to voice since the day Gregory died.

You didn’t start this war, Danica, and neither did I. It’s been going on so long it’s meaningless; people fight because they don’t know what else to do. People fight because their leaders fight, and then their leaders die and they have more reason to go on.” I suddenly found myself gripping her hands, though I was not conscious of having reached out. “Danica, my sister Irene is carrying a child. She was white with fear when she told me. It’s an event that should bring joy . . . but everyone in my family just remembers an avian soldier plunging his knife into my oldest sister’s swollen belly.” Danica opened her mouth to say something, perhaps apologize or maybe denounce the soldier. But the words would not change anything so I hushed her quickly. “No apology is necessary, Danica. I’m going back to the Mistari Hall tomorrow evening. My mother, sister, and guards will not be there to argue with the Disa and me. I hope you’ll be there, and that you’ll listen to what she has to say. What she suggests . . . it might work. I’m just asking you to give the idea a chance.” Danica hesitated. I knew she wouldn’t have made such a choice for herself but then neither would I. I also knew she would do just about anything to end the war, as I would. So I pulled out my final argument. “Please, Danica? You sang to my brother of peace and hope. I can’t believe that you aren’t as desperate for those things as I am. Just . . . try.”

“I will try,” she whispered nodding.

Thank you.” I was overcome by some strange emotion, not quite gratitude, but something stronger. Before I realized what I was doing I stepped forward and lightly kissed her cheek. As soon as I did it I knew that I had made a mistake. Danica voiced a loud, wordless protest. She silenced herself almost immediately but it was too late.

That shout instantly brought two of the Royal guard into the room.

I backed away from Danica, ready to defend myself if necessary but unwilling to put her in the middle of a fight. As far as I knew she would be defenseless if caught between two seasoned warriors. I looked for an opening I could slip through without incurring violence, but before I had the chance Danica stepped in front of me.

“There’s no trouble here, I was just about to escort Zane out, anyway,” she informed her guards in a tone that would allow for no argument. Whatever power her guards had over her, they still had to submit to her authority. I relaxed marginally and was able to reply smoothly when prompted.

“Thank you for speaking with me at such a late hour, Danica.” I did not allow myself to relax completely, however and was hyper aware of my own muscles as well as minute hints in the guards’ bodies as to what their next moves would be. I offered Danica my arm, begging her with my eyes as I did so.

One guard moved to allow us to pass but the other; the one who seemed fond of the princess intentionally blocked my path. I elbowed my way past him and ignored his glare. Rather than trade dirty looks with the avian, I wrapped an arm around Danica’s waist and kissed her hard on the mouth. After releasing her, I nodded a polite good evening and changed shape as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I was still near enough to hear part of Danica’s conversation with the guard. Enough to know that his name was Rei and that Danica was aware of his affection for her. Undoubtedly she was clueless as to just how strongly she affected the males around her, but then what could one expect of someone raised among the ever-so polite avians?

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

The next morning I dressed with extra care and was about to make my way to the Mistari hall when I was stopped by a young tigress who informed me that the avian party had left in the dead of night. No doubt Nacola found my presence in Danica’s rooms distasteful.

Charged with the duty of bearing unpleasant news, I sought out my mother and sister. Incidentally they were in the first place I looked playing a card game with Adelina and Galen, I figured the guards must know as well and did not dismiss them to talk.

“Oh Zane,” my mother greeted me, laying her cards face down on the table, “back so soon? So your talk was successful?”

I shook my head and found a semi-comfortable seat on a low cushion. “They left in the middle of the night.” I informed the room at large.

“I knew you couldn’t trust a bird to keep its word,” Galen muttered, wincing when Irene kicked him.

“Well good, then you don’t have to marry Her Highness” Adelina sneered. For some strange reason my lover had taken an instant dislike to our ancestral enemy and my would-be-bride. Unfathomable, I know.

“Why did they leave so suddenly?” Irene asked as if the answer didn’t really matter. This of course meant she was dying to know and had some inkling I was involved somehow.

“I’m not sure. Perhaps the Tuuli Thea took exception to the fact that I was having a conversation with Danica Shardae in her personal chambers at some ungodly hour of the night. Either that or they didn’t like the cheese,” I shrugged.

“What were you doing in Danica Shardae’s room?” Adelina shrieked accusatorily. I noticed she spit Danica’s name like a curse but was otherwise unfazed by the outburst.

“Talking,” I answered simply. I did not need to explain myself to my guard. “I think we’ve made some progress. But, it’s time to go home now so I guess we’d best start packing.”

That was three days ago, we had now been on the road long enough to be sick of each other, not that we weren’t already. We were all ready to return to the palace and life as usual, maybe talk to someone other than the same four people. I also have this to say about travelling, tents do not insulate sound very well.

The rest of the journey was very monotonous, other than a few remarks from Galen or Adelina about the proceedings in the Mistari lands; no one had much of anything to say. After far too many hours in each other’s presence we reached the border that separated Serpiente lands from the avian holdings and were finally allowed to go our own ways. It was nearing moonrise so I stopped in the stables long enough to change horses to a nameless dun mare and followed the old Desmodus paths to the avian Keep. By now I knew my way well enough that I did not need to pay much attention to my surroundings until I was within sight of the tower and the soldiers who guarded it at all hours.

The horse obeyed me through the entire trip, but shied at the unfamiliar scent of avians, clearly it had never been in battle or encountered anything quite like them before and, as most horses, was uncomfortable with the unfamiliar.

“Shhhh,” I hissed at the mare in what I hoped was a comforting tone as I tied her to a tree in easy walking distance from the Keep but far enough away not to be spotted by some overzealous rooky guard.

From there I continued on foot the trip I had made so many times that I could retrace my footsteps backwards and blindfolded. I made a little more noise than usual as I made my way from the ground floor to the first and was worried I’d be noticed when I remembered how horribly lax and incompetent (if controlling) the Royal Flight was.

I made my way to Danica’s room to find her in the throes of a nightmare as usual. Sometimes I wondered what thoughts and memories plagued her unconscious mind but other times I decided I didn’t need any more ammunition for my own nocturnal torments, though Danica had made a token appearance or two since the last time I was here.

To my surprise, the hawk princess sat up without warning and looked me straight in the eye. “Please don’t scream,” I requested quietly. I knew I would be helpless if she did, I had not given myself much room to escape quickly. To my surprise she didn’t, instead she swallowed and glared.

“What do you want?” She demanded. I was surprised that she heeded my pleading instead of immediately calling for the semi-conscious guard outside her door.

“I should think you would know that,” I responded softly, it didn’t come out quite as flippantly as I had hoped, in fact I sounded a bit desperate to my own ears. Not that it mattered, something about Danica seemed off, her eyes were unfocused and her expression was more puzzled and frustrated than cold or wary as it would have been in the daylight hours.

“You don’t seem dangerous enough to warrant my mother dragging me out of the Mistari camps in the middle of the night,” she mused out loud. Maybe she’s drunk, I thought with amusement. But still I decided to play along in case her brain was merely taking it’s time to join her body in wakefulness.

“I don’t?” Instead of answering, she began to pace. Rather quickly, actually. Whatever it was, Danica was not well. “Danica, are you alright?”

“Is there any reason I should be?”

she asked as if I were a particularly slow and annoying child. Actually, she almost yelled. I do believe I was witnessing an avian losing her temper. I grew more concerned as her outburst continued, if she got any louder her guard would wake and come rushing in at any moment. But I was impressed. For the first time I was having an honest conversation with this woman with whom I was quite frankly obsessed. Both parties were conscious and Danica had dropped her avian mask. It turns out she is as disheartened by the constant slaughter as I had always thought her to be. She lamented the death of those around her and not just loved ones, but children and strangers. “But I am nearly Tuuli Thea and once I am that will be my entire life. War. Death. And I don’t know how to stop it.” She concluded her mini rant. I have to say, this Danica was a pleasing surprise.

“If I knew how to grant that wish,” I responded when I found my voice. “I would have done so already, before this damn war had taken so many people from me, too. Friends, lovers, family; I would have saved them all if I knew how. But if we both want peace, I can’t believe that it is impossible to manage.” I couldn’t help flirting a little as I complimented the princess.

Before leaving hastily, as I felt us both fading, I pressed a Cobriana signet ring in the palm of her hand as I kissed her, then whispered instructions in her ear. I knew she probably wouldn’t be able to meet me tomorrow, or right away, but I would wait a few days for her to remember this conversation and show up. Leaving her standing next to her bed and starring after me, I vaulted the railing around her balcony and expertly slid down the trellis.

Somehow I managed to stumble home and into my bed. After a few hours of sleep I woke to find my sister bouncing on the edge of my bed.

“What, have you suddenly decided you want to be four again?” I asked. While my sister would probably never outgrow her playful childishness, I was a bit cross at having received not nearly enough sleep. “What time is it anyway?”

“It’s almost midday, and no, I won’t leave. Not until you tell me what you’ve been up to.” Despite her tone and the jovial way she was still bouncing on my mattress, I believed her. “You’ve been to see Danica again, haven’t you?” She accused slyly. Suddenly her expression changed and her eyes widened in revelation and disgust. “You’re not secret lovers are you? That is just not right. Oh! Poor Adelina! What’s wrong with you?”

“Relax. I’ve only been speaking to Danica about possibilities concerning the cessation of hostilities between our peoples.” I told her, perhaps a bit more primly than strictly necessary. “Not that I have to answer to you anyway,” I reminded her, and myself.

“Uhuh,” Irene dismissed my comments like water rolling off a stone. “So, what’s the news?” Knowing that there was really no way to get rid of her, I explained my entire plan including the part where Danica was due to appear in an hour or so.

“What if she doesn’t show up?” Irene asked not bouncing anymore. “What do you do then?”

“I guess I have to do something drastic.”

“You know, you can’t expect her to show up right away. Isn’t she being crowned in a few days? I bet she’s busy and might not have a moment to herself for a while.”

“Then what do you suggest? I can’t go talk to her again, just in case it’s not that she’s busy.”

“Give her a few days to show up, if she isn’t here by the day after the coronation go ahead with your backup plan. I’m sure it’s appropriately gory.”

“What makes you think I have a backup plan?”

“Because you’re you, you always have a backup plan. Your backup plans have backup plans.”

“Fine, so do you want to wait with me or not?”

“Not, it could take a while and I can think of so many other things to do with my time. In fact I think I’ll go visit Aisha. Or Galen. Whoever I run into first.”

“As long as I don’t get the details if it’s the latter. Not that I particularly care if it’s the former either.” I kissed my sister on the forehead before she left and contemplated crawling back into my bed. Unfortunately the sun was too high in the sky and I had other duties to attend to.”

The next two days passed agonizingly slowly. I had the sense not to appear to be waiting for something or alter my schedule at all, but I was irritable and it showed. After the second day I removed the three guards I had chosen to patrol the exterior and left it up to Adelina’s discretion. This, of course, meant that I was suddenly summoned in the middle of mediating a complaint between two merchants in the open air market and urged to come to the large ornate meeting room back in the palace.

I was greeted informally by Adelina when I entered the chamber. While I was not unused to such displays from my lover, she usually left off when she was on duty. “Adelina, what on earth is important enough to –“

I began to ask, both of the display and of the summons. I looked around the room to find Danica tied and kneeling on the floor, I could see the beginnings of bruises blossoming where she had been grabbed or struck. She looked up at me and flinched looking more cowed than I had ever seen her. I was suddenly very irrationally angry, of course my guards would treat her as an assassin, and these were not the ones I had informed of my plan. I had not even let Adelina in on the knowledge that there was a plan.

“Get your hands off of her!” I hissed throwing the guards casually aside. It was not hard as they did not fight me. It also helped that no one would dare oppose me when I was in such a foul mood. I could hear Adelina yelling behind me but I ignored her except to ask if Danica had been searched. I was not surprised when she answered “Yes . . . milord. She had nothing.”

I nodded, unsurprised. It would have been suicide for her to come alone unarmed, but even worse if she had concealed even the most innocuous of weapons. Secure in the knowledge that this was likely not an assassination attempt I ordered the guards out. They left easily enough with little exception.

Once the room was cleared but for my visiting dignitary, I knelt before the princess and prepared to cut her bonds. Seeing the blade she flinched again and her breath hitched as I moved closer to her. But relaxed as I cut her bonds. Once she was released and assured me that her injuries were minimal, she attempted to stand, only to stumble into my arms. I caught her easily and managed to keep us both upright even as she attempted to back away from me. Silly avians and their physical boundaries, can’t even accept a helping hand.

Misinterpreting my expression, she hastened to defend the actions of my guards. After a few more moments of polite conversations and assurances, I led her to the large oak table that dominated one end of the room. Now our talks could begin.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

“I have people loyal to me who have access to the Keep. They keep me informed.” I watched mildly amused as Danica reacted to the information. The avians thought they were so good, making virtually everything inaccessible to a non-winged assailant or observer, even their emotions. But I had learned there were ways around such practices. I would probably never forget the day I met Eleanor Lyssia, it was long before the first of my brothers had died, when I only thought of Danica abstractly if I ever thought of her at all.

I was thirteen, I had snuck out of some boring lesson that I had no intention to learn and not even Irene was quick enough to follow me. I had decided to hide in the woods; no one would think to look for me there because no one thought I’d be stupid enough to choose such a hiding place. Apparently someone else had the same idea. It was a girl; she was maybe two years younger than me and obviously avian. I had been told that avians were promised to each other shortly after birth and that the girls no matter how young they were went nowhere without their betrothed. I wondered if maybe she had run away from something unpleasant like I had or if her Alistair was hiding somewhere nearby.

“Hi,” I’d said instead of running away, she didn’t run away either. “What are you doing?” I asked before she’d had a chance to react. I really hoped her Alistair wasn’t just on the other side of some trees or something like that. Instead of answering, the girl did some cartwheels and collected some flowers as if I wasn’t there. “Hey!” I’d called beginning to get mad. “Why are you ignoring me?”

The girl turned to look at me and rolled her eyes. “I’m not ignoring you. I just thought your question was too stupid to dignify with a response. What does it look like I’m doing?”

“It looks like you’re trying to get yourself killed by playing alone in no man’s territory.” I told her a bit haughtily. She just glared at me then climbed into the tree so she could look down at me.

“That’s stupid. But I like you. Wanna be friends?” I stared incredulously at this tiny imp who didn’t seem to know anything.

“We can’t be friends. We’re supposed to try to kill each other when we grow up.” I told her like it was the most obvious thing in the world. And it should have been, too. But she just wouldn’t buy it.

“No! If we’re friends now, then when we grow up we won’t want to kill each other. And then we can make our other friends be each other’s friends too and then no one will want to kill each other anymore.” She explained to me quite patiently. Her worldview was so simplistic. I doubt she actually knew any soldiers personally. I think she was the one who first gave me the idea for peace. And we did become friends. It helped that she was also childhood friends with the woman in front of me and was able to pass on enough information that I felt confident in making alliances with the avians. Well not all of them, just the two women who were once innocent girls with big dreams.

“If we manage to succeed in ending this damn war, I will gladly introduce them to you.” I answered, barely managing to contain a smirk. And if we don’t end this war I will use every advantage I have to make sure things go my way, I added silently. But I was confident that we would end this meeting with some form of agreement. Danica was much too stubborn, and I too determined, to allow this pointless massacre to continue for one moment more when the end was within our reach.

Danica’s eyes narrowed minutely as she interpreted my unspoken words and was again on the defensive. It was time for me to take control of this meeting and steer the conversation towards a peaceful resolution.

“If I give you my word, Danica, you can be assured I will keep it. . . I will do what is necessary to end this war. If that means accepting the Mistari’s suggestion, then I will go down on bended knee this moment and ask you to be my Naga. If that means listening to any other suggestion you have . . . so be it. And if it means taking the Hawk’s Keep down stone by stone with my bare hands, then without hesitation I will begin.”

“I came here to talk about peace, not to receive threats.” Danica nearly hissed as she stood and backed away from me. Her eyes flitted about the room as if looking for an alternate exit. I could feel the change in her heart rate from my seat as her flight or fight instincts responded to the situation.

“I gave my word that you would be safe if you accepted my invitation,” I reminded her. I did not leave my seat or gesture in her direction or that of the double oak doors on the far wall. Both because I did not wish to startle her into fighting me, but also because I did not want to draw her attention to the exit should she decide to leave before we finished conversing. “If you turned around right now, neither I nor my guard would stop you.”

And afterward?” she prompted with a deceptively mild tone. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. It occurred to me that she might be trying to intentionally provoke me. To what end I do not know.

“I hope we can end this war with peace, not a bloodbath.” I began as I opened my eyes. With each word I was steeling myself for the next which led to the words that would begin a sentence which could quite likely seal my doom. So I stalled with some rambling and a bit of philosophy, until I finally worked my way to the words that were so hard to say because I did not think I could bear to hear Danica’s answer whichever it may be. As we spoke I watched the princess. Impeccable and perfect, detached and passionate, and I wondered do you realize what we are about to do? What has already been done? And I wished I could be asking this question differently. I wished that there was a different person sitting across from me. I wished that there was another man speaking these words to her. At the same time I hated those imaginary others. This must be what going mad feels like. “I implore you, Danica Shardae, to agree to be my Naga.”

With those words the world froze. Both of us sat still as statues. Danica stared at me and several emotions flitted across her features too quickly to be recognized, though I imagined I knew what they were. Despite the tension in the room I felt right. Whole. I could live from now on secure in the knowledge that whatever her answer might be, I had done everything I could to lead us to a peaceful future. Any bloodshed from now on would be on her hands. I felt free and loose and tingly at the same time that I was dying of suspense and feeling strangely vulnerable.

“I don’t know how in the world I could convince my protectors to back my decision.” Danica breathed shakily. I relaxed; sensing that this preamble could only lead to an affirmative.

“Yes or no is all the matters. We’ll work out the details later.” I responded before Danica could talk herself out of her decision. With a deep breath and a swallow, she said the words that made it real.

“Yes, I agree.”

I stood and caught Danica’s hand. My fiancée’s hand. I kissed her knuckles and pressed another ring into her palm. This one I’d had made especially for her on our return from the Mistari lands. It wasn’t so difficult. Upon my eighteenth birthday the feminine counterpart to my own signet ring was made, it was easy to replace the traditional stone with a golden variation I happened upon. The result was a traditional Serpiente piece that matched Danica’s eyes. If I had noticed the hawk mostly wore gold jewelry or that she appeared to prefer stones in a warmer tone than what was traditionally worn among the Serpiente, that was merely coincidence and indicated nothing of the level of detail I tookin when I observed her.

While we discussed plans and practicality I watched Danica’s hand as she unconsciously fiddled with the ring. I don’t think she noticed that it had been sized to fit her slender fingers perfectly. I smiled to myself as her matter-of-fact tone softened whenever she brushed the stone with her thumb.

Half an hour later we parted ways with plans to meet again in three days. I walked her through the most direct route to the main doors of the palace and tried to ignore the fact that we were being shadowed by three on duty guards and every off-duty we passed. I bade her good-bye at the doors and addressed the assembled.

“In the future I do hope you will treat Danica with more respect than you have today.” I turned down one of the many halls that eventually led to my personal chambers without acknowledging any individuals.

I was not to be left alone for long. I was almost immediately assaulted by Adelina. “What was that?” The viper demanded, her tone threatening. I felt sorry for Adelina. Whatever we had was strong, and it was important to us both. But it wasn’t love. On my end at least. If it were, would I have convinced myself to marry Danica so easily? I felt a great deal of affection for the woman who had been my closest companion for so many years and I felt pity for what I was doing to her. But I didn’t regret my actions today. I wouldn’t take them back for her. And while I would likely always feel strongly for Adelina, I realized now that whatever our relationship was, it was not based on the enduring “forever love” we had believed it to be as children in our first rush of sexual exploration.

What we really had was familiarity and perhaps a kind of love.

Or maybe I was justifying hurting her by belittling and diminishing our relationship. Even if just to myself. “What was what?” I countered in a way that would have been considered playful on any other day. Today it was more pathetic and avoidant.

“What were you thinking kicking me and the rest of your guards out of a nearly soundproof room while you fraternized with the enemy for two hours!” She burst at me. I knew that for the most part this vehemence came from concern, but I also knew that Adelina felt threatened by Danica on a personal level.

“I was thinking that I wanted to have a private conversation with a fellow monarch. Preferably without either of us being harmed or threatened.” My voice was dangerously low Adelina knew me well enough to back down. But she was also upset.

“You’re not seriously considering the Mistari’s suggestion, are you?” She asked voice small and hurt as she questioned me from the doorway.

I massaged my forehead as I answered her.

“No.” I did not allow her a sigh of relief before I continued. “It’s already been considered and a date has been set. Danica will be Naga in a few days.” I couldn’t meet Adelina’s gaze as I heard her breath hitch. I suspected that there would soon be tears. “And I need the Guard’s cooperation on this.” I doubt any woman had ever been asked as much as I was asking Adelina. And I wasn’t even asking, I was ordering.

“I really hate you right now.” She told me.

“I know,” I whispered. I really hate me right now, too. I wanted to tell her.

“I must be completely insane, because I love you anyway.” She left, slamming the door behind her before I could reply. Adelina never asked leave, she was a horrible guard that way.

I lay face down on my bed and grumbled into my pillows for a few moments. Adelina’s footsteps had barely faded when I heard a familiar knock on my door. I don’t know why she bothered knocking.

“Yes, Irene?” I called and felt the change in the air as the door opened. Somehow, impossibly, it was warmer as my sister entered the room in her usual fashion. She bounced onto the bed so hard that I nearly bounced off and wanted to shove her like I did when we were children.

“Am I to assume that all went as planned?” Irene chirped. “Did she like the ring?” My sister had an amazing talent for avoiding the real problem and still somehow fixing it.

“Yeah she liked the ring.” I said softly. “She didn’t say anything but I could tell she appreciated it.”

“So, things are gonna be pretty weird for the next couple of months. I mean I’m going to be all hormonal and crazy, Adelina’s going to be her usual charming self, and we’ll be hosting a feathery invasion. Sounds like a challenge. I know how much you love a challenge.”

“I wish you wouldn’t talk about Adelina like that.”

“What? I don’t hate her or anything. I just think she can be a bit overbearing at times.”

“You’re still mad about that time she ripped your favorite veil.” I accused, lightly.

“She did it on purpose and never apologized!”

“She was fourteen! And she bought you a new one from the same weaver even though she couldn’t afford it.”

“It wasn’t the same.” Irene defended primly. “Mine had tiny silver bells sewn into the seam, and the one she got me wasn’t the right shade of green, it didn’t match anything I owned!”

We both laughed at our memories of a time when we were only training and playing at war. We quieted quickly as somber thoughts invaded our happy place.

“And Gregory threaded these god-awful bells into the corners and couldn’t figure out how to sew the seams back.”

We sat in silence for a few more minutes before I spoke again.

“In other news, we have to figure out how to break the news gently to the people.”

“Which news?” Irene asked distantly.

“How you break your news is up to you. But how am I supposed to announce and avian as Tuuli Thea? Preferably without violence erupting.”

“The usual way I suppose. Just have some guards out of uniform in the crowd. You should probably warn enough people in advance that they won’t hesitate to kneel.” She chewed her lip as she thought. “The guard should all know ahead of time. Maybe the girls should be the ones to greet Danica?” Irene suggested, referring to the three newest members of the Guard. The girls came from merchant families and had not lost any close relatives to war, neither had they been in the Guard long enough to have seen battle. The only hatred or distaste they would hold for Danica would be the abstract inherited kind. Not that which stems from having faced her people as enemies.

“You should be a general. Unfortunately I am doing my best to remove any need for generals, so I guess you’re stuck being a princess.”

“You mean I have to lounge around all day being waited on hand and foot and pampered by legions of personal servants?”

“At least until you attempt to strangle one of them.”

“I would only do that if I were truly starved for amusement. Which does seem to be a likely occurrence under those circumstances.”

“Luckily, you have me. I promise to be forever getting into scrapes and relying on you to help me out of them.”

“I don’t know where you find the time to get into so much trouble in the first place.”

The decisions and plans had already been in place for weeks, the only change was the woman I would be announcing. On the second day I met with Eleanor in secret long enough to be sure that she had been provided with a garment appropriate for the occasion. I was also informed by my most eager spy that she would do all she could to make the days go smoothly on the avian end. Once the minor details had been tweaked to suit my purposes I had little else to occupy my time and the next two days passed agonizingly slowly.

Finally the morning of the ceremony arrived and I was to expect Danica in a few hours. I took more care in dressing than usual in the hopes that it would make the time go by faster. Then it was time to meet my mother and sister in the same formal meeting room where Danica would receive basic Serpiente etiquette lessons before the ceremony.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

About half an hour before Danica was due to arrive I met Irene on the way to the meeting room. We didn’t speak as we were both anxious but for different reasons. Our mother had preceded us to the table and was already seated drinking a cup of her favorite herbal tea. She gave us a smile as we entered and gestured to the pot on the table.

Since our return from the Mistari lands my mother and I had spoken infrequently, though we were still in close enough contact for me to have mentioned some fears and nervousness I had regarding the proposal. Though I often wondered aloud what I was thinking at that moment I was quick to defend Danica when the occasion arose as she was risking the most for the time being.

Ignoring the refreshments and table I began to pace as had become my habit of late. I was on my seventh revolution when the doors opened and Danica was escorted in. I dismissed the guards easily and turned my attention to my future Naga.

“Danica, allow me to introduce Naga Charis Cobriana,” I gestured toward my mother and sensed her nod regally behind me. “And you already know my sister, Irene.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” Danica responded in a tone that was both polite and a little remote. To my surprise she met my mother’s eyes squarely and smiled as she spoke. I decided she was trying not to show how nervous she was. Of course my mother was not a Cobriana by blood and I have not hear any avian legends of python eyes carrying any devious powers so it was always possible the Danica merely felt safe and confident enough to meet my mother's gaze.

“My son speaks quite highly of you,” Charis told Danica with a knowing smile. As if she knew something the rest of us didn’t. Or like she was teasing us. Ordinarily at this point Irene or myself would have quipped back. We could waste several minutes making up vicious gossip we pretended the other had told. But this was a serious situation and before anyone could say anything too embarrassing or awkward I steered the conversation toward something a bit more serious.

“How shortly should I expect your guards to storm the palace?” I was not sure if they even knew she was gone yet, though it was common knowledge that the Royal Flight was not in the practice of letting the Tuuli Thea go anywhere unescorted.

“The Royal Flight will be informed of my whereabouts shortly before sunrise, if I have not returned by then.” Danica answered bluntly but with a light and playful tone. Before I had a chance to retort the large double doors were opened without as much as a knock. It was Adelina who entered without first being acknowledged and in a show of dominance, presumably for Danica, she entered with only a deferential nod to my mother and sister.

“Zane, you are needed.” She said in a tone of voice I’d never heard before.

“Am I? I’d like to know what your guard needs me for at the moment.”

“I need to speak to you,” she clarified shooting a quick glare at Danica that I wasn’t supposed to notice. I was becoming tired of this imaginary one-sided power struggle. While I was marrying Danica and as such had to end my relationship with Adelina, she was obviously the one that held my affections and didn’t need to compete with this non-existent threat.

"You can speak as freely in front of Danica as you can in front of me,” I tried to assure her, but somehow my meaning is lost in the words and instead of creating an air of openness or at least diffusing the tension I have increased it exponentially. Luckily my sister is a born diplomat and sent me to the hall with Adelina before the awkward silence could stretch for too long.

In the hall I stood motionless waiting for Adelina to speak her mind.

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” she started avoiding my gaze.

“But I do,” I told her sadly. “Well maybe not this specifically, but it was the least lethal of our options.”

“Like she won’t kill you the first night anyway,” Adelina muttered to herself. “There’s an avian tradition of murdering Serpiente in their beds,” she continued louder.

“And if that happens which I doubt then at least I tried. My people deserve that much.”

“Your people? Yeah your people deserve a lot. But what about what I deserve? Huh? What you deserve?” She retorted her voice climbing. “Hell, even what Danica deserves.”

“I admit this was nobody’s first choice. But it’s too late to back out now.”

“Why do you have to be so gods-damned self-sacrificing? Just this once be selfish, be with me!” She pleaded. She raised a hand and for a moment I thought she was going to strike me, but instead she made a frustrated strangling motion in mid-air accompanied by a wordless shriek.

I placed my hands on either of her shoulders and Adelina leaned in to the touch. I wished she wouldn’t, my next words were too cruel even though we both knew they were coming.

“After today, I mean, after this you know we can’t be together anymore.”

She sniffed, when had she started crying? “I don’t have to like it.” She grumbled but eventually agreed. At some point while we were talking, we had moved away from the honey-oak double doors of the smaller audience chamber. When I returned to the room it was to a solemn silence as my mother and sister had briefed Danica in my absence.

We spent the next hour or so acquainting Danica with the maze like halls of the palace and the guard chosen to protect her. For her part she seemed genuinely curious about the branching twisting halls. She was as gracious with meeting the Guard as one could expect and even tried committing names and some small details to memory. I just hoped Danica was able to play her part well enough for the large audience awaiting us because I couldn’t compensate for the both of us.

I stepped on stage and was greeted by whistles and cheers, it still surprised me sometimes how much my people cared about me. It was probably proportional to the amount I cared about them. They were willing to die for my family; I was willing to live the rest of my life in loneliness for them. Not that I said so. No, I gave a pretty speech about love and romance and acceptance. I said some things about hope and daring, beauty and wonder. I painted a picture of two love-struck royals no longer willing to be separated by our peoples’ mutual hatred.

I always was a good story teller. But something in my words struck a chord within me. I was reminded of the first time I had watched Danica sleep and let the feeling color my voice.

I avoided explicitly naming names until Danica’s cue when she stepped out on stage and watched the audience’s reaction. For the benefit of those who did not recognize the woman standing before them and for the binding contract the words would seal, I announced to the assembled, “Allow me to introduce my Naga, Danica Shardae.” I did not miss Adelina slip out the back, nor was I truly surprised.

The carefully planted Palace guards knelt, arranged out of uniform in such a way as to influence the crowd’s acceptance of Danica and interfere if the gathering were to become a mob. As each guard knelt so did the civilians nearest them until only a handful of people were left standing in dissention. They were quickly soothed by some pretty words, light sarcasm, and a touching display.

To my surprise, Danica did not hesitate to wrap an arm around my waist, nor did she flinch at my simulated kiss. Throughout the evening as we circulated through the crowd, Danica kept a hand on my arm or was otherwise in constant skin-to-skin contact with me. I was not sure if it was for the benefit of the Serpiente who would be disgusted by anything less than a love-match or her own nervousness and wanting to reassure herself that she was near someone who would protect her . . . or at least hesitate to kill her. Her constant warmth and rapid heartbeat was welcome at my side as I found her nearness soothed most of my own tension. I did not contemplate why this was and instead focused on ensuring that my usually demonstrative people did not overwhelm my new Naga with their eagerness to be near royalty. A few times I had to warn off a young man who was being overly familiar (by avian standards) with Danica, but for the most part the introduction went well.

It was the dinner when things got difficult. Technically it was far too late for any kind of formal meal. But one could not expect so many people to be gathered for so long without refreshment, or for such an event to be without a banquet. As Danica quietly picked through the vegetable dishes and the rest of us enjoyed the meat courses (no fowl of course. I had already resigned myself to a life without poultry from this day forward. And I would avoid having it served at meals where Danica was present. Perhaps it should be removed from Palace kitchens) when a question about Danica’s guard was raised. This led to a short disagreement about the appropriateness of an Avian queen being guarded by the avians she had known since childhood who had been raised to guard her. The ridiculousness was not lost on me, though I noticed Danica tense at the raised voices even as she feigned polite indifference to the outcome.

Finally it was late enough to disappear into our rooms. Danica apparently agreed with me, she leaned against my side as I led her to the part of the palace that was for sleeping. At some point she began to mumble indistinctly about how good I smelled. She had apparently used wine to cover her nerves and while she was not noticeably drunk, I doubted she would recall much of the evening in detail after the food had been served. She seemed to wake up a bit to take in the room and was considerably shocked to find that her childhood friend had been working with the Serpiente for some time.

It was appallingly easy to convince her to allow me into her bed in her exhausted, shocked, and somewhat tipsy state. My true motives were just as pure as my stated ones, I wasn’t used to sleeping alone, the walk to my own room suddenly seemed very long, and my presence should be enough to thwart any would-be assassins.

After the fourth longest day of my life, I closed my eyes and sank blissfully into a dream. It was not as vivid as the dreams I was used to having, but was rather filled with sensations and emotions, mostly pleasant with no accompanying image. I felt peace and contentment and a little bit of pride radiate from somewhere to the left of me and moved closer until I was completely enveloped in positivity.