Falcondance Page 10

"I remember your mother a little, from when I was a child," Lily said, tentatively. Araceli sighed and nodded for Lily to continue. "But then, watching the Indigo Choir dance is not something anyone could forget, no matter how young."

"The choirs dance?" I asked, confused.

"Each choir is a rank, and each rank is defined by how many levels of our magic its members can weave," she explained. "It takes most people centuries to master as many layers as your mother managed in the sixteen years before she fled. Kel was among the Empress's favored from the time she was seven. I remember how much I envied her for that as a child. No one ever spoke Kel's name without pride, without respect." Softly, she added, "And then she left it all behind."

I wondered if Lily shared Araceli's opinion about my mother's actions. "Do you know why?"

"No one's ever content with what they have, I suppose," Lily answered carefully. It was the same thing Oliza had said to me on my last day in Wyvern's Court. Araceli scoffed. "Kel had earned the highest rank a non-royal peregrine can achieve in a fraction of the time such prowess usually takes. That power, along with the Empress's favor, and her fame as a dancer, gave her a great deal of arrogance."

"But how can you say  -  "

She put up a hand to silence me. "Your mother was always restless, but she had sworn herself as one of the Empress's personal guards. When she began to feel the weight of the duty she had chosen, she fled rather than face it."

The picture Araceli painted was so different than any I would ever have associated with my mother. It chafed so much that I couldn't help challenging Araceli. "And my father?" I expected her to silence me again, but instead, Araceli looked away, drew a deep breath and attempted to answer me.

"First Sebastian wanted to learn about other places. I was wary of letting him go, but Syfka argued reasonably on his behalf, so I allowed him to act as a kind of ambassador to the avians. Suddenly he announced that he was in love with a hawk. It was a childhood infatuation, and if I had treated it as such, it would have blown over, but I overreacted, demanded he return home, pressured him too much. And lost him." Both my parents sounded like impulsive children running away from home.

"I do not care for the girl I used to be."

my mother had said to me once, when I had asked why she never spoke of her past. My father had said almost exactly the same thing:

"Sebastian of Ahnmik, if he had survived, was not a man I would have wanted to know."

I had always assumed that they hated their past selves due to the land that had shaped them. Was it possible that they had disowned their pasts because they had been as flighty and immature as Araceli described? They had grown since and learned the ideals of duty and loyalty and honor that they had taught to me. Surely they would hate remembering that they had once fled their responsibilities rather than facing them. I was grateful when Araceli asked, "Are you ready to return to training now?" I stood up and stretched, then answered bravely, "Anytime." I would rather be buffeted by her magic than by these dark thoughts.

Once again, we stood in the sun, my eyes blinded by what Araceli called falcon's silk  -

a silvery, shimmering piece of cloth that Lily had summoned effortlessly when Araceli had asked her to, weaving the fabric with nothing but air and magic. Araceli began the same exercise we had performed the day before, this time without her arms against mine to guide me.

Good, she said, encouragingly.

Again.

We continued, the dance performed without either of us moving.

Again.

One more time.

Nicias, Nicias Silvermead...

I felt myself pull back as Darien's call echoed in my mind. "Nicias of Ahnmik, focus!" That command came from Araceli.

I felt Darien slip in between Araceli and me. I was distantly aware that she was dealing with Araceli now, mimicking my faltering attempts at the magic to keep Araceli from sensing that anything was amiss.

Nicias, leave them and come to me tonight,

Darien crooned.

If you want power, I can give you power

-

Her voice faded away, then came back sharper than before.

Nicias, you wear lines of magic on your skin. Are you fool enough to think they are harmless?

For a moment, I felt uneasy. What did I really know about falcon magic?

Tonight, Nicias, come to me.

Then she was gone, and I staggered under Araceli's magic. The blindfold was pulled away, and I blinked against the unexpected light.

"That's enough," Araceli said. "You did well. Within the next few days, perhaps, we can start working on simple Drawings."

I wasn't paying much attention to her, just nodding mechanically to acknowledge the compliment.

What if Darien was right? My mother and father had warned me about Araceli, as Darien was doing now.

But Darien was mad.

Yet she had given me very real and sane doubts. "I think I'm going to  -  " Lily leaned against my side, sighing tiredly, before I could finish my sentence. I needed some time to walk around the city on my own again, but I didn't have the heart to send her away.

"If you aren't too tired, you would probably enjoy watching the dancers," Lily suggested. "Indigo Choir performs tonight."

Araceli nodded. "I know that the serpents you were raised with still dance, performing what they recall of the ancient steps, but you have never seen a true sakkri performed. It is a sight you should not miss."

Chapter 11

As dusk fell, Lily hurriedly led me through the glittering streets and toward the triple arches I had seen from a distance, but had never tried to locate.

"There are three arches, at different heights," she explained as we approached.

"Talented air-dancers test their wings by trying to fly through the tiny space between where the arches almost intersect. I've known more than one arrogant dancer who has lost pinfeathers and pride to that trick  -  myself included, I admit. The air-dancers we will see tonight are all of the highest rank." She squeezed my hand. "Trust me, you will be amazed. Especially since you have only seen the dull imitations done by the serpiente. These are real."

I was about to defend the dancers I had grown up with when we passed through the veil of magic that separated the arches from the rest of the city. The air changed, cooling slightly. The music around us also changed, from the indistinct singing of the roads to the murmur of voices hushed in anticipation.

The five dancers were gathered at the center of the arches, facing each other with their arms crossed at the wrists and their fingertips touching those of the person next to them. They stood like statues, moving only to breathe, which they did in perfect unison.

"What do you mean, these are 'real'?" I asked.

"Serpiente dance with their bodies, and that is it," Lily said. "A falcon dancer uses her body to weave magic. When the serpents perform the daraci'Kain, you watch and perhaps enjoy the dance. When Indigo Choir performs the daraci'Kain, you feel the rain on your skin. You are the thunder. The magic speaks of love, and you feel love so powerfully, you would give everything to keep it; it speaks of fear, and you shake in terror. Wait and see."

Lily's description didn't make me eager to experience this, but in that moment the last of the day faded, and the five dancers hit the first note of the music together. They were answered by the arches themselves, which began to sing as the five moved into the first steps of the dance.

The first turn left a trail of silver magic. The dancers were like shadows, silhouettes against the colorful patterns the dance left behind.

I closed my eyes for a moment and could still see the dance and the magic, ripples of silver, plum, violet, burgundy, deep sapphire and rich emerald building and hanging in the air.

Suddenly I could feel more than myself, more than the dancers; I could feel the breath of the city, how the magic was wrapped into everything  -  even the shm'Ecl. I felt pure love as the city kissed its sleeping kin.

I dropped to my knees, and I felt Lily do the same beside me. We were breathing in sync, hearts beating together. I opened my eyes and nothing changed. There were tears on my face, and I did not brush them away.

The performers sang another note and moved into another dance, and now it was not perfect love I felt, but awe. Within a few moments, I recognized the steps of the daraci'Kain from serpents' performances, but as Lily had said, serpents simply couldn't do this.

As Lily had described, I felt the fury of the storm, and when I closed my eyes, I could feel the warm ram. I was a wave in the ocean, thrown to the shore and then drawn back out again and again.

I saw lightning, and my breath caught until a roll of thunder reverberated through me. Still trembling from that shock of power, I felt the dance shift once more, to a sakkri'teska, a dance of thanks. Calming, soothing. The magic fluttered across my skin like the wings of a thousand butterflies, cooling that which the storm had scorched. I was filled with gratitude, and again I felt tears in my eyes. When the dance broke, I found myself on my knees with my hands splayed before me and my head bowed. I was not alone; some had bowed even lower, so that their foreheads pressed against the ground.

Each of the five dancers turned to face us and sank into a similar bow, returning the honor.

A few of the audience stood, including Lily, who stepped forward.

"Varl'nesera-fm'itil."

she said, praising the dancers and kneeling before one of the women. You bless us, dancer.

"Fm'varl'nesera-hena."

the falcon replied. Be blessed.

By the time Lily returned to my side, I felt almost capable of standing. Offering me a hand, she said, "You do the dancers a great honor by attending the performance. It is not often that any of the royal house are present."

"I'm not  -  "

She put a finger to my lips. "It may seem unimportant to you, but you are still the Lady's blood. It means something to those who performed for you tonight. It means much to them that you were so moved. Most of the strongest do not allow a dancer's magic to touch them. I believe they miss a great deal." Shyly, she offered, "Perhaps someday I can perform for you. I would do a harja, though you might accuse me of trying to use magic to seduce you."

I laughed a little, hugging her close. "Do you need magic, Lily?" With her eyes so fair they were almost gray, she asked softly, "Do I?" The moment hung heavily, words unsaid. She looked away first, turning the conversation back to a neutral topic. "The dancers will stay here for the next several days as they recover. It takes a great deal of energy to spin magic as they have tonight."

"I can imagine," I answered. "Was my mother really once able to do that?"

"That and more," Lily answered. "She was one of the best. I once saw her dance a sakkri'a'she, when I was a child..." She shuddered. "A dangerous dance."

"Sakkri'a'she?"

I asked.

A'she meant future, but I did not know what it meant in this context. Lily's gaze lifted, and she scanned the skies as if for inspiration. "Some of the most powerful magics are the sakkri'sheni, those that deal with time. Most easily, the past can be viewed  -  though never changed, of course. I can spin that form, though it is difficult. Then there are those dances that show the future: that which might come to pass. They're unpredictable, and show unlikely events the dancer fears as often as they show nearly certain futures." Softly, she added, "No one foresaw that Kel would run." The mention of my mother's name was jarring. My skin was still tingling from the Indigo Choir's performance. I didn't want to think about home right then. I was enjoying Lily's company; I had even enjoyed Araceli's. I tried to keep my father's words about Araceli in mind, but that day she had seemed so different to me from the cold woman my father had portrayed. And then there was the city, its songs and its living roads. I understood now why my parents could not speak of this place without sighing.

Once Araceli had taught me my magic and I was able to safely leave, I would have to go back to Wyvern's Court. I was loyal to Oliza. I had sworn my life to her. But I was beginning to feel reluctant about abandoning all I had learned, abandon ing the city and the company of both Araceli and Lily.

Oliza would want me to be happy. She of all people knew what it was to be an outsider; she would understand the appeal of a world for my own kind.

I winced. When had my own kind stopped meaning the avians and serpiente I had been raised with and started meaning this civilization I was related to by seemingly little more than blood?

Again, Lily drew me from my dark thoughts, hugging me as she kissed my cheek.

"I'm sorry; I did not mean to upset you, especially after a day as long as the one we've just shared."

We returned to my rooms together. This time there was no debate. Already it felt right to have Lily beside me as I slipped gracefully into sleep  -  and onto the familiar black ice, lit only by the silver moon.

"The night on ice," came Darien's voice. I turned, but could not find her. "That is how Ec l is described. Just as Ahnmik is the white falcon, diving through the midnight sky." I heard a screech and looked up to see the image she had described, the falcon diving...

diving until it slammed into and through the ice, sending fractures out in a million directions, a million fingers of gray in the blackness.

"Shm'Ecl."

I felt her breath on my neck, and I turned to find her standing close, dressed in a traditional falcons' outfit like one Lily had worn earlier. Her image blurred before my eyes, and then it was

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