Falcondance Page 13

"It doesn't matter now, does it? It's over, sir."

She spat out the title, then turned on her heel and walked away from me. "Guards, Araceli and Cjarsa are both occupied. If you let him pass, it will be your hides." Lily's wings were trembling slightly, betraying the tension in her body. That morning, in ignorance, I had been happy. Part of me wanted to reach for her and push away the knowledge I had gained.

It did matter now, more than it ever had.

I called out as she ascended the stairs, "Araceli ordered you to keep me from Darien." Lily hesitated for a moment. "What will she do to you, knowing you failed?" Her magic lashed back at me, making me stumble and strike the wall, every hair on my body standing on end. "I am no longer your concern, my lord. You have made that much clear." She pushed open the silver double doors at the top of the stairs and shut them behind her so hard that I heard them ring.

The Pure Diamond guards were watching me warily. Death to them if I forced myself past. Painful death, probably.

I had hurt enough people that day. I did not need to give myself more nightmares by fighting these two.

Then come back to me,

Darien whispered in my mind.

Let me teach you our magic, teach you what Araceli should be... could be, if she didn't fear Ecl.

Chapter 13

I WANTED to go home.

I could not undo the evils of the past, or forget the horrors I had learned. I could not undo the hours spent in Lily's arms, or forget the ice cold expression on her face. I could not forget, though I wished to.

I did not want to be a royal falcon, a prince of this bitter island. I did not want their power. I wanted only to return to Wyvern's Court.

Araceli won't help you.

Darien's voice in my mind was now gentler, almost apologetic.

She was pained by the loss of one heir. If she was less obsessed with purity, she never would have given up Sebastian. But she refuses to see a man with a crow's face as her son. She will not part with another child. She never intended to. Everything felt like it was crashing down around me. How could I learn to control my magic under these circumstances? I had been raised to be loyal and honest, and I did not have the wiles necessary to manage the game Araceli had begun.

I can teach you your magic,

Darien promised.

If you have the courage to ride the

Ecl,

I can teach you.

Darien was using me even as she offered to help me. Lillian had been manipulating me even as she'd shared my bed. Araceli had been engineering my thoughts and actions from the moment I had stepped onto this island. And Syfka... anyone who had seen my mother's belongings would have known that they would lead me to seek out Darien. Either Syfka or the Empress who commanded her had planned for me to visit the halls. Syfka has her own agenda, though I do not know what it is,

Darien agreed.

But if her plans force her to help you, and help me, then we can use her as she uses us. Did anyone here ever work under pure motives, or was it all a facade, layers upon layers of deception?

We are Ahnmik's chosen, and Ahnmik is god of control and power and the mind. These games are the way of our realm. Now come.

You,

I replied tiredly, want no less to use me than Araceli does.

Certainly,

Darien answered lightly.

But that being so, can we not use each other, too? You take what I teach you. I have faith that, with knowledge, you will do what I hope. If you do not... then perhaps it was not meant to be. I, however, will only manipulate you with the truth. Araceli has no such qualms. I will manipulate you with what is and what could be. Whether you choose to follow where I lead, or lead where I suggest, or fly another sky altogether will ultimately be your own decision.

Come to me. Now.

* * *

Servos was not present as I entered the halls and immediately walked up the winding ramp to Darien.

Without either of us speaking, I untied the bonds on her wrists and ankles. The knots that had held her for so long separated almost instantly at my touch, and Darien sighed. Once free, she stood, stretched and unfurled strong white and black gyrfalcon wings. She let out a cry, half pain and half triumph. She stretched and flexed her magic as she had her body, and the sheer power made my breath catch before she finally turned her attention back to me.

Nicias.

Darien

I thought for a while that I would never be free of my bonds. Many times, over many years, I almost gave myself to

Ecl in order to escape this imprisoned flesh. Then I felt you, when your magic woke, and... remembered why I'd chosen this path.

She stretched once more, arching her spine and reaching her hands above her head. You are Kel's child, she said, approvingly.

But I think you may be stronger than she is. You can handle what I have to teach you.

"And what is that?" I asked aloud, for seeing her standing perfectly still while I heard her voice so clearly was unnerving.

"Magic," she answered. "Science. Religion. Whatever you call it. The void. The Ec l. I can teach you to ride it."

"And then?"

"Ride the

Ec l, and it can never rule you," Darien explained. "If you go willingly, if you dance with its darkness, then you will keep your own mind. Your anchor. That will be enough to keep your magic from devouring you.

"If you are brave enough to begin."

She put her hands up as Araceli had the first day, then paused, allowing me to either mirror her or not. No more words were spoken.

I hesitated, but not for long.

I pressed the backs of my hands to hers.

Now dive, she commanded.

* * *

Once again I was on the black ice with Darien, with the harsh wind ripping at our clothes and hair. The full moon was circled by rings of plum and cranberry, the only colors on the landscape.

"Ecl'gak."

Darien said, naming the land.

Illusion.

"Those the Empress calls shm'Ecl are the ones who have fled from a world that holds too much, into a world where they can rest. Sometimes they do so intentionally  -  it only takes an instant, a single thought that perhaps nothingness would be easier  -  and sometimes they do so unintentionally, overwhelmed by their own magic until they forget where the real world is. They get caught by illusions, which are created by their minds to protect them from oblivion.

"Finally, even the illusions fade, and there is only

Ecl.

It is nothing, but it is beyond that. It is the absence even of emptiness. It is what is before existence, what is after annihilation. There is no desire to return, and even if one does find a mote of self-awareness, struggling is futile. The more you fight, the more painful the illusion becomes, until you sink back into oblivion because you cannot face what you have created."

Darien smiled softly.

Then, at a flick of her hand, the ice shattered. I tumbled into the cold water beneath, choking on it as I had in my nightmares, and struggled to remain afloat. The ice cut into my hands as I tried to grasp it.

"Fight and you will fall here," Darien snapped.

Now dive.

I

can't.

My heart pounded as if it was trying to escape my chest, but as much as I shared its desire to flee, there was nowhere I could go.

"Nicias of Ahnmik, son of Kel of the Indigo Choir and Sebastian of the heir to the white Lady, mindwalker  -  Nicias Silvermead, sworn Wyvern of Honor. You can drown here, or you can dive. Make your choice.

Now."

If I did not follow Darien, I would be trapped here, one of the unmoving shm'Ecl, forever.

I let go of the ice, and then there was no ice, just the water, sucking me down. Neither cold nor hot, it engulfed me instantly. I forced myself not to struggle to the top and found myself sinking ever deeper.

My need for air disappeared, until I realized it had gone and I panicked, afraid to draw the blackness into myself as breath, but afraid not to just the same. Again I was thrashing against nothing.

Calm yourself, child of Mehay. Fearing her darkness only drives you closer to her. I wasn't certain I could even call it a voice, let alone Darien's. Let yourself fall. See where the darkness takes you.

I imagined for a moment that I was back at Wyvern's Court, at the end of a long day of drills, and then I brought my mind further back, to my days in the dancer's nest. I remembered the exercises the serpiente taught, designed to relax one's body and mind. A sigh seemed to brush against me, like silk in the darkness.

Why do you walk here, stranger?

a familiar, resigned voice inquired.

Suddenly, in the distance, again I saw the black castle. I

was back on the ice, surrounded by dunes that began to ripple, smoothing and shifting so that no matter where I stepped I could not move closer to the distant castle. You aren't wanted... not by me, anyway. Stay here long enough and Ecl will keep you. So why do you walk my kingdom?

Abruptly I stood before a scene held in ice like a frozen tableau. In it were the triple arches where the dancers performed. Above the arches, a black-winged dancer lifted her face to the moonlight and stretched her body as if weightless. Her hair was black, but held scarlet highlights. Her eyes were closed.

I recognized Hai, Darien's half-serpiente daughter. My thoughts of the serpiente must have brought me to her  -  or her to me. There was no distance, no "here" anyway.

"Is this your kingdom?" I called. "Or is it your prison? Can you leave?" Why would I want to leave?

Hai replied.

I jumped back as the image before me shattered, shards of ice slicing my face and arms before they fell to the ground, where they turned into black and crimson feathers. I knelt to pick one up and found that it was broken and twisted, its edges seared. What are you waiting for? Me to invite you in for tea? Go away. You shine too brightly here.

Ignoring the dismissal, I asked, "What do you mean, I shine too brightly?" You

-  are, you've...

As if my question had distracted Hai from maintaining her defenses, the path to the castle appeared before me. I could see her, again, standing at the top of one of the turrets, her body a gray silhouette against the white moon.

My mother comes here, sometimes, hut I can hardly see her. She is never... really here. She is surrounded by nothing and she is nothing. But you make all this seem fake. Illusion.

"It is."

"Don't patronize me!" Her voice reached me this time, not in my mind, but carried on the air. "I know this is illusion... sometimes, anyway. When nothing reminds me, when you and my mother don't barge in here and try to pull me out, I forget. But when you walk in, you shine, and then  -  " The ice around me glittered with a million colors, before it once again faded to black. "All my world fades."

"Why do you stay here when you know it's fake?"

She turned from me.

Why not?

"It isn't real!"

There was a pause, and for a minute, I thought she had left, withdrawn into the palace. But finally she responded,

When you are not here, I can forget that. Color, sound, touch

- I forget it all.

Horrified, I asked, "And you're happy that way?"

Of course not, she answered, very matter-of-factly.

But at least I am not in pain.

I reached the castle, only to find the drawbridge closed and the moat filled with serpents, all with their fangs bared as they moved through a vile liquid that stank of brimstone.

Is the real world so awful?

No pleasure might mean no pain, but I had never imagined pain bad enough to make me pay that price.

There are beautiful things there. If you can't stand Ahnmik, you would be welcome in Wyvern's Court

-

The air laughed, an eerie giggling that came from nowhere and everywhere. Wyvern's Court, yes. Beautiful, doomed Wyvern's Court. Leave now, Nicias. Before I need to kill you to get rid of you.

I think your death would stain this world, but so will your life if you l inger long... so leave now. Hai.

You speak of illusions, my prince, but you cannot recognize the truth. Go now, Nicias. Leave me to my sleep, and I shall leave you to your waking dreams. She pushed me away, and again the world around me faded. I fell into E

cl without any defenses, forgetting everything I was and had ever known. There was only the void I drifted through  -

Yet there wasn't, because there was no

I

, and the void can never be.

Occasionally I became aware of something more, something

Mehay beautiful and horrible.

E

cl rippled for a moment. And then I remembered pain.

I screamed and remembered sound.

I drew a breath and remembered taste and smell as I inhaled the dry air. I remembered sight as the light blinded me, and I pressed my hands to my eyes. Then a hand touched my shoulder, and I remembered comfort. "Mehay." A voice spoke, and I remembered music.

Still, I longed for the

E

cl, wanted to reach out to it, because I knew it was near and inside it I would never know hurt.

"Nicias, stay with me."

And hearing my name, I remembered

I remembered my vows, every one I had ever made in my life.

Darien's voice seemed very loud, even though I knew she spoke softly. The smooth floor on which I knelt felt coarse against my knees, and the air in the halls was suffocating.

The halls

-  we were back in the Halls of shm'Ecl.

Again I saw droplets of my own blood on the floor beneath me, too real after the void. My arms were striped with the black and scarlet magic I had come to associate with Hai.

I didn't want to be here...

I ran myself through the dancers' exercises. As I forced myself to relax, I found myself smoothing out the marks Hai had left on my skin. I realized I was doing it only when I saw the marks begin to fade, and I was so startled that I snapped my gaze up to Darien. She smiled tiredly. "You have touched

Prev Next