Falcondance Page 12

"But the royal falcons will do it. And they leave me here, locked and bound and blinded, because they know I know, and they pray

I will be truly lost to the void and never bare the truth to the light of day." I wanted to shout at her, to demand that she take it all back. I had not been alive during the war, but I had heard enough about its horrors. I had seen the hatred and fear that generations of fighting had left behind. Too many people my age and older were missing mothers, fathers and siblings.

I didn't want Darien to be telling the truth, but her story made too much sense to be ignored.

No one knew how the ancient war had begun  -  no one except the falcons.

"My mother was aware of this?" I whispered. My ears were ringing, and my voice seemed unnaturally loud.

"Once, she was," Darien said. "But no one in the avian court would have believed the truth even if she had tried to tell them. They would not have wanted to believe. Now..." She shook her head. "Years ago Kel came back to Ahnmik to plead with Araceli to let Sebastian, your father, go free. She bartered her magic, her mind, her knowledge. Araceli burned from her memory the worst and the best. Kel doesn't remember anything having to do with those days. She doesn't remember what we learned... or who she learned it with. She doesn't remember the torture she dealt... and she doesn't remember me."

I winced, needing to look away, as if that could change anything.

"How did you learn all this about the falcons?"

Darien's gaze turned distant. "My daughter's father was serpiente. After he returned to his home, I used my magic to keep an eye on him. I saw him killed during an avian attack, and I reached out to save him. I think Cjarsa might have let me, but Araceli pulled me back. She told me not to interfere, though I could feel the avian poison  -

unmistakably one of Araceli's creations  -  burning through his bloodstream as if it was my own. In fury, I turned on her, demanding to know why we had to let him die, when it was easily within our power to end the avian-serpiente war entirely. She told me it was their choice, and not our place to interfere."

She paused and looked away. "I have never been as talented with sakkri as your mother was, but when Araceli lied to me that day, for a moment I could see the past as clearly as if it was marching before me. And I knew what she and Cjarsa had done. The vision was so powerful that we all knew, everyone who was in that room. Some of us chose to forget, or ignore. I couldn't, not with my child's father dead because of Araceli's ego." What Araceli had done to Darien was unforgivable, but I was more horrified by what she had done to the avians and the serpiente. Wyvern's Court would forever be stained by their war, a war intentionally begun to cripple my world. For the first time in my life, I believed absolutely in evil, for there was no other word that could describe such an act.

"Confront Araceli if you need to," Darien said. "I see in your eyes that you are thinking of it. I can protect you from her persuasion magics."

Desperately, I asked, "How do I know you aren't using the same magics on me? Making this sound more..."

Darien shook her head. "Because then you would never have been able to question me. If you can consider both sides of an argument, no falcon magic has been used on your mind." She admitted, "I tried to use magic to bring you here, but others did their best to keep you from me. Araceli suggested that Lily come to the shm'Ecl that first day because she realized that you were on your way, and she hoped that your 'friend's'

presence would distract you until her meeting with Syfka was through. And Araceli has done what she could to distract you every time you have seemed inclined to return here. But now, Nicias... I do not think I need magic to make you see the horror of what Ahnmik's royal house began with the murder of the young queen Alasdair." I nodded, still not sure I fully trusted her, but shocked by her story just the same. My body was shaking, a fine tremble. I needed to compose myself. Needed...

Needed to confront Araceli.

I stumbled down the hall, away from Darien, almost running.

"Nicias, are you all right?" Servos caught my arm as I started to brush past him, and I looked at him without a thought of what to say.

"Darien is awake," I said, finally.

Servos winced as he searched my gaze. "She spoke to you directly?" I nodded, wondering how much he knew.

"She is mad," Servos said. I was about to argue with him when he added, "But she is also very sane. Have care with her, Nicias of Ahnmik. She is an injured bear, just as likely to turn on the ones who try to help her as on the ones who hurt her." And who is he to speak

? Darien sighed in my mind.

Servos, guardian to these still halls. He has been kind to me, true. But he worshipped Ecl in his youth. The only reason she does not take him is that he already loves her darkness.

Go to Araceli, Nicias. Soon is best.

My steps through Ahnmik were long and quick, yet at the same time they got me nowhere. It seemed that the three white towers that marked the courtyard of the Empress's palace were never in front of me no matter how I turned. The roads fight you,

Darien said.

They fight you because they know you are going to challenge Araceli and Cjarsa, and though they do not have lives per se, they protect the royal house

-  as the Mercy do. Luckily, you are of royal blood too. Araceli's chosen will not hasten to break you.

As I tried to shake those dire words from my mind, I finally saw the path to the palace. I simply turned a bend in the road and it was before me, as if the roads and the city had given up protecting me or Araceli.

I pushed open the grand doors and found Lily standing at the base of the stairs, interrogating the falcon who had given her the Empress's summons.

"You lied to me."

"I gave you the message that the Lady Syfka gave to me. I do not know why the Empress would not see you," he said, defending himself.

"My lord, can I help you?" the other guard said, a little too loudly, as if to alert the others that I was present.

Lillian, now the youngest yet most powerful of Araceli's Mercy, Darien shuddered as Lily turned around, seeming startled by my presence. She, Kel and I did always compete.

I wondered just how old Lily was. She looked my age, but in a realm where most never aged after their twentieth year, that meant nothing.

Lily was nine when Kel fled the island and I fell to Ecl.

Only twenty-nine now,

Darien informed me.

Too young to know what she does.

I did not mean to speak aloud, but could not stop myself from asking, "Did you know?" Lily's eyes flashed from gray to violet. "Did I know what?" Her voice was fragile, her expression almost wounded. "Why are you looking at me as if I've drawn a knife on you, Nicias?" She stepped toward me.

She might as well have,

Darien snarled.

Tell the two-faced little fowl that she deserved the knife I once managed to give her. Darien's fury toward this woman I cared for made me wince.

Lily put a hand on my arm. "Nicias, what's wrong?"

My stomach clenched with guilt. Darien's words were persuasive, but I had known Lily for  -

Nicias, get control of yourself,

Darien commanded.

She's put persuasion Drawings on your skin. Of course you hesitate to

-

She's used more than magic on me,

I responded.

"Nicias... did something happen while I was gone?" Lily asked, fearfully. "Dear sky above, Nicias, what is it?"

Darien's shouting in my mind strengthened.

So what if she does like you? You're an excellent catch. You are the only male child of the royal house; you are powerful and influential and beautiful. None of that matters, because Araceli ordered her to seduce you, to make you want to stay on Ahnmik, and to keep you away from me.

I tried to push Lily away, not sure whether to believe Darien, but shocked by the implications. Lily held my arm. "Nicias  -  "

"I've been speaking with Darien," I said, allowing her to take the words as she wished. Her eyes widened in fear. "Oh, gods, no." She stepped closer.

"Tasa'Ahnleh."

she whispered.

Ahnleh could mean many things, but in the form that Lily spoke, it meant all things evil.

"Nicias, she could kill you."

"Were you ordered to keep me away from her?"

"Of course"

she answered vehemently. "Nicias, Darien is dangerous.

She hates the royal house, of which you are a part. Araceli wanted to protect you  -  " I recalled the words Lily had spoken two days before:

I know I will never be first to you. You have sworn your loyalty to Oliza much as I have sworn my loyalty to the white Lady...

"Did she also give you other orders?" I demanded.

Lily crumbled, stepping back from me. "Do you think it was all an act?" she whispered.

Of course,

Darien responded, though I tried to close my mind to her barbs.

"Why were you sent to Wyvern's Court?"

Had the tale she told about her brother been true at all? Or had she lied about that, too?

Lily drew a deep breath. "I told you the truth about why I visited your lands. If Araceli had other intentions, I never knew them."

That lying little fowl,

Darien snapped,

I may not be privy to Araceli's commands, but I know how her mind works. You were coming of age, Nicias. Of course Araceli would have sent someone who could be a suitable mate, if you proved worthy

-  or could put you down, if you tried to tie yourself to a serpent or avian. I recoiled mentally from Darien, and physically from Lily. I didn't know who to trust anymore. Darien hated Araceli, and I did not think she would hesitate to warp the truth to get me on her side. Lily was working for Araceli, and I had no idea how far that loyalty went.

Araceli wanted me to stay on Ahnmik.

But why had she called Lily back before I had mentioned my fall in the woods to her?

Araceli knew that your power had awakened. She felt it that day in the woods, just as I did. What better way to make it easy for Lily to guide you here, without anyone asking questions, than to command she return? Araceli would not even have needed to tell Lily her intent.

Even now, the suggestion seemed contrived. I wanted to believe Lily; I wanted to erase the hurt from her violet gaze. She put a hand on my arm, and I opened my mouth to apologize.

Trust yourself,

Darien snarled, fiercely enough to make me flinch.

Trust what you know to be true. And never trust a falcon whose eyes flash violet, for it means she is using the strongest of her magic. Is it so hard to imagine what for?

How many times had I lost my train of thought when Lily looked at me with such jewelcolored eyes?

Ask one of the Pure Diamond if he can see Drawings on your skin, Darien suggested.

They cannot lie to you.

I glanced at the two guards, who had been standing in silent ready positions throughout our brief conversation.

If they could see magic on me, did I really want to know?

Your hesitation itself is due to magic.

I turned to one of the Pure Diamond. "Could you see, if someone had used magic on me?"

The pain on Lily's face cut me inside. "You don't trust me at all, do you?"

"Of course I  -  "

"You think I've been using magic on you," she said. "You think... what? That Araceli ordered me to befriend you?

Sleep with you? Fall in love with you?"

"No!" I protested, at the same time that Darien answered viciously, Yes, of course, save the love part. The Mercy isn't encouraged to love. It would be awkward, if she was later ordered to skin you or some such. If Lily is foolish enough to actually care for you, she will regret it when Araceli calls her.

"What am I supposed to think," Lily said, "when you start asking Pure Diamond to read for magic on your skin?"

Try this one

-  Darien pushed at me, and I found myself saying words she was inventing. "I told you I spoke to Darien. I think she might have used magic on me. You might not be able to see it since she was a higher rank than you."

"How much did Darien tell you?" Lily asked, quietly. Her face held an odd lack of emotion; those gray eyes were shuttered.

"About?"

"Everything."

I had to tread carefully. "I think you know what she told me." Lily nodded. "Darien, Kel, Mer and I found out together."

"And yet you still work for Araceli."

Lily's eyes had returned to pale blue, and the expression in them was cold as hail clouds.

"Did Darien tell you what her fighting won? How many innocents were destroyed by her treason before the Empress had the heart to sentence her favorite to death? Did she tell you that Kel had to leave behind a sister and a lover when she fled the city and put herself into exile?

"Did Darien tell you that a few years ago Lady Cjarsa took pity on her and drew her from the shm'Ecl and offered pardon  -  and that Darien repaid the favor by trying to kill her? Did she tell you how many of the Mercy died or fell to Ec l that day, my brother included?" She insisted,

"That is what Darien's struggle got her, Nicias. So don't look at me with disgust for refusing to wage that war."

Look what it got you, Lillian,

Darien sighed.

Is it true?

I asked her silently.

In part, the gyrfalcon acknowledged.

What she does not mention is that the Empress's pardon came with conditions. But that is history and this is now; that is my life and this is yours.

"What other orders did Araceli give you, regarding me?" I asked, as gently as I could. I needed to know. Had any of it been real?

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