Falcondance Page 11

Lily standing there.

But when she spoke, the voice was still Darien's. "Do you like this form better? Do you trust it more?"

I stepped back, unsure of how to deal with her icy rage.

"Do you notice the way her eyes change color?" Darien asked. "The magic stains a falcon's body. The magic is what puts the blue into your hair. What do you think makes her eyes violet? And why do you think you turn from your questions the instant she wishes you to?"

"I've known Lily for years," I replied. Why was I arguing with Darien? Why did I feel the need to justify myself to a specter I had never even met in the flesh?

"Two years," Darien said. "Two years are nothing in this world, especially when the prize is the trust of a royal falcon. Look at me, Nicias!" she commanded when I tried to will myself out of this dreamland. "Look at me and listen to my words with all the intelligence and reason I would expect from Kel's child."

"What do you know about my parents?" I demanded.

"Enough to know that neither of them would have fled this island if there was nothing here to flee," she retorted.

Darien turned, as if startled by something. "You don't speak of a mindwalker without her knowing, especially when you lie so close to her, but what choice did I have?

Nicias, Nicias, if you want to learn your magic, I could teach you... everything," she whispered. I could feel the effort it was taking her just to maintain contact with me. "I could teach you in one night what it may take you a hundred years to learn from Araceli."

Come to me.

The ice shook at her command, and I was lost again, surrounded by black mountains. The serpent who had haunted me was before me again, but as Darien's voice echoed, it recoiled.

Come to me.

I pushed past the cobra, following the only path I could see as the ice began to shatter around me.

Come to me.

When I woke, it was because Lily was shaking me. "Who calls to you?" she asked. I blinked in disoriented surprise.

"I grasped the barest tendrils of the magic," she explained. "It is a powerful call. Who is it from?"

I answered, "One of the shm'Ecl.

Darien, she is called."

Lily's eyes widened, and she snuggled closer to me. "I am glad I have never heard that one sing... not since

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cl took her. Be careful, Nicias, and take her words with a grain of salt. Darien hates the royal house. She was one of the Empress's Mercy, until she turned on her liege. I was there the day Darien attempted to assassinate Araceli." Lily twisted, and I noticed for the first time the faint scar under her right shoulder. "Her blade ripped through my back, into my heart. My brother saved my life. Mer fell to

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cl that day, but at least he took that bloodless creature with him." I shivered, thinking of how close I had come to trusting Darien.

"That's why Darien is bound now," she explained. "Even if she recovers from Ec l, she won't be able to leave those halls."

""Why wasn't she executed?" There had to be more to this tale, but I didn't know what.

"The Empress is merciful... and she has always been very fond of Darien, despite all the traitor has done," Lily said bitterly. "Be careful. Until you learn to protect yourself, I fear that even bound Darien could wrap you in persuasion magics so strong you wouldn't hesitate to hold a knife to your own throat."

She tucked her head into my chest, and I felt a wash of guilt. Her brother's fall was what had driven her to Wyvern's Court. Now that she had returned to Ahnmik, what right did I have to make her face her demon again?

"If you will let me," she said, "I can share with you dreams more pleasant than those of the black ice."

I nodded.

As we drifted back to sleep, I thought I heard one last faint whisper from Darien. I

am not the only one on this island capable of such magics, Nicias, she warned. Even my enemy has told you that I am bound and helpless. Now come to me.

Chapter 12

THE REST of the night passed blissfully, but we had barely stepped through the door of my rooms the next morning when Lily was pulled away.

One of the Pure Diamond falcons who I had seen guarding the palace delivered the summons. "Your lady would like to speak to you."

Lily looked surprised. "Is it time for Nicias's lesson already?" Now it was the messenger's turn to look surprised. "Your lady the Empress Cjarsa has requested your presence," he clarified. Lily's eyes widened. "I apologize. The Empress so rarely grants audiences, I didn't imagine she would have reason to summon me. Nicias, I'm sorry, I must leave you for a while. Please, be careful."

She kissed my cheek and then changed shape without another word.

"Is something wrong?" I asked the Pure Diamond falcon before he could leave, too.

"I do not know the circumstances of the command, sir," he answered, watching me with an eerie focus. It took too many moments for me to realize that he was standing at attention, a guard before his monarch, awaiting either further commands or permission to leave.

"Dismissed," I said, not at all comfortable with the turnabout. I had heard that word many times from Oliza, my commander and the Tuuli Thea and Diente; I had never expected to speak it.

"Thank you, sir." He changed shape, spreading black-and white gyrfalcon's wings to take himself back to the palace.

Only after he was gone did I realize we had had an audience. Instead of greeting me, Syfka said, "Pure Diamond falcons are bound magically to obey anyone of royal blood. That you have not decided to stay as Araceli's heir doesn't change that."

"Can I help you?" I asked, still distracted. Syfka had shown no interest in me since I had arrived on Ahnmik, but now she obviously had something she wished to say.

"Your mother left some things here when she fled," she said briskly. "Rightly, they're yours now. If you'll come with me?"

She turned without waiting for me to respond, and I hastened to follow. I thought she would lead me into the courtyard, but she passed by the white sands, and instead we went to one of the three yenna'marl.

"This is the Mercy's tower," Syfka explained as she led the way up a spiral staircase formed of smoky glass. We passed by several doorways, each marked with a different pattern. "And this was your mother's room. It has been locked since she disappeared." She touched the doorway, and the patterns shifted until the door clicked open and Syfka stepped back to allow me access.

"Thank you."

She shook her head. "If it was my choice, I would have had these things destroyed years ago. It was Cjarsa who favored Kel and Darien, Cjarsa who ignored their treason as if they were children and not guards of the royal house, and Cjarsa who commanded that your mother's possessions be passed to you." She snapped, "Help yourself," before turning and abandoning me with the remnants of my mother's old life. I pushed the door open the rest of the way. As they did in my room, the walls began to emit a soft light. In here, the marks were not just silver, but also violet. I wondered whether my mother had been the one to create them.

Though most of the bedding had been stripped away long before, a silky shawl had been left behind. I picked it up and realized that it must be a melos, one of the scarves given to dancers as the highest praise for their work. It felt as light as air in my hands and shimmered with all the colors of the sky at sunset.

In one of the corners, the artist who had woven it had left a note: a'sorma'la'lo

'Mehay ka

'hena'itil'gasi'ni la'gen-Darien

I translated the words swiftly. To the sister of my soul: a more beautiful dancer there never was. Yours, Darien.

I put the melos down, wondering how my mother had known this woman well enough to merit such words.

On the far wall stood a vanity made of pale birch wood. Its surface held a silver hand mirror, an assortment of hair clips and a portrait  -  a ghostly image etched into a glass surface.

At first I didn't think I knew either of the two women in the picture. They were both sitting on the edge of the cliffs, looking out at the ocean and laughing at something. Then I recognized my mother's violet eyes, in a falcon's face I had never known. The other woman, I realized with a start, was Darien. She seemed so happy and carefree in the portrait, I almost couldn't believe she was the same woman who haunted my dreams.

Next to the portrait was a small box, with a hastily scrawled note beside it: I

go to confront Cjarsa today. Please keep these for me. They should go to my daughter when she is old enough to understand.

-  Darien

Underneath the box was a letter, unfinished and unsigned, but in Darien's handwriting. It was a letter to Hai's father, informing him that Darien carried his child, but most of what she had written was crossed out.

A self-mocking scrawl at the bottom of the page read,

Why should I bother to tell him of a child who the Lady will never let him know? A child the Lady will never let study magic, but would rather sentence to Ecl for the misfortune of having her father's blood?

Darien had trusted my mother with these things, and with her daughter's future. My mother had kept them, as well as the melos and the portrait, and displayed them as cherished belongings.

Darien had called to me many times, but I had never thought I had a reason to believe her words. Now I realized how close she had been to my mother, and it made me reevaluate everything Lily had told me.

I used my mother's melos to carefully wrap up the box of

Darien's belongings, along with their picture. I planned to take the scarf and portrait back to my mother when I went home, but the other things belonged to someone else. Someone I had just decided I should see.

This time, I found the Halls of shm'Ecl without difficulty. Servos greeted me, but did not ask questions as I walked past him.

Shortly I began to hear Darien's voice again, a haunting singsong. Foolish child, foolish child, you tread in power and greed. Foolish child, foolish child, you tread in blood and darkness. Nicias of Ahnmik, Nicias Silvermead, destroyer of an empire. Come to me.

Though magic held them all, Darien was the only one of the shm'Ecl who was physically bound. I could hear her chanting as I approached.

"Finally the great prince deigns to speak to me," she said once I stood before her. "He lets them mark his skin and use persuasion magics on him first, but finally he comes to me."

"How did you know my mother?" I asked as I knelt before her.

"Will you remove this blindfold?" she replied. "You know that sight only hampers our magic. If I wished to harm you, a blindfold would only make it easier. I would just like to look at you as we speak."

That made sense to me. I put my mother's belongings down between us and reached to pull the blindfold away. The cloth seemed to dissolve beneath my touch.

"It's falcon's silk, woven by Pure Diamond," she explained as I stared at the remnants of the fine material. "It can't be untied, removed or cut, except by one of royal blood." She kept her eyes closed for a moment, as if bracing herself for light, and then slowly lifted her gaze, uncertainly.

I felt a rush of familiarity. When I had fallen in the woods, the silver eyes that had looked upon me, the curious voice that had spoken my name, had surely been Darien's.

"Nicias, you wear your mother's blood so visibly on your face. Even if she no longer does."

"How did you know my mother?" I asked again as Darien looked at the objects I had set between us.

She smiled a little. "Kel and I were ever rivals for the favor of our Empress. And yet we were friends, closer than any among the Mercy had ever been. Her friendship was the brightness of the life I led. Mine was the brightness of hers, I believe. But then we found... what we did, and I fought the Empress.

"Cjarsa does not acknowledge friendship or loyalty to any but herself. Kel would have been the one to give me the Empress's mercy. She fled Ahnmik rather than put me to death the way Cjarsa would have it done. And I let

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cl take me, rather than give my

Empress the satisfaction of hearing my screams," Darien said.

"What did Cjarsa do?"

"You want to know?" Darien asked, voice lilting. "Will you believe me? You will not want to believe it; I did not want to believe it. And you have lived among the serpiente and the avians, as I never did..."

I knew of the falcons' ancient feud with the serpiente, but Darien's anger spoke of something more tangible in our current lives. What horror could this woman know that would force her to turn on her empress and would drive my mother from these lands?

"Tell me, please," I implored her.

Darien nodded and then closed her eyes.

"When the followers of Anhamirak left those of Ahnmik in the days of the Dasi, they kept their serpiente magic. Cjarsa and Araceli, falcon priestesses of Ahnmik, worried that the serpiente, being more prolific than the falcons, and more active, would be a danger.

"So they took in a young human child and raised her, to be like themselves but different. They brought her to power, and helped make her empire as strong as that of the serpiente, their natural enemies. Then they used their persuasion magics to convince one of the serpiente to stab this leader in the back. Her name," Darien said slowly, "was Alasdair. The first avian. Her people retaliated swiftly. The avians slew the eight original serpents of Anhamirak's clan. And the war that began between the avians and serpiente has continued ever since, generation to generation of blood and hatred.

"The royals of Ahnmik will do the same again, if your Wyvern's Court grows too strong," Darien warned. "Because they know that if the slaughter stops and the two lands finally find true peace, the serpiente will regain their magic and be a threat. If your wyvern Oliza comes to the throne, they will destroy her  -  but so subtly, blame will never fall on their shoulders. So many generations more of cobra, python, boa, taipan, rat snake, mamba and viper will be lost, and so many more generations of crow, raven, sparrow and hawk will fall. Perhaps Araceli will find a new pawn, maybe the wolves.

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