Falcondance Page 14

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cl, and yet you have returned. If ever again you embrace her, you will be able to find your way back. Fear is what drives you into the darkness, beyond where any voice can reach. Relax your mind, and you will be drawn back toward this world like rain to the earth.

"Without your fear in the way, and with your royal blood to guide you, you will quickly learn how to use your magic with finesse. Simply put your body in balance, close your eyes and focus on the intent. If the spell is within your grasp, you will be able to see the pattern. Depending on the complexity, it may take you minutes to memorize, or centuries. Even if you never learn more than I have given you, it will be enough to keep you from drowning in the void."

"If what you have taught me is such an effective way to keep someone safe," I asked,

"then why doesn't everyone use it?"

Darien shook her head. "And deprive the Lady and her heir of so many years during which they can brainwash their subjects?" she said bitterly. "Truthfully, most falcons discover their power when they are still children, some before they are four, and hardly any after their ninth year. But, Nicias, you are nearly a grown man. You have a lifetime of bonds holding you to this world, vows you've made and connections you've forged. Even more important, you are old enough to have a strong image of who you are. A child lacks all that. They would never have the strength to return from the void if they dove in as deeply as you and I have," she said sadly. "Why do you sound pained?" She sighed. "Mehay is pain, inasmuch as pain is part of existence."

"There's more to it," I pressed.

"I, too, have bonds here," she said, her gaze distant. "Vows I made in blood and magic, which lock me to this world and will for all eternity. Particularly, they tie me to the Mercy. That is a group you leave only in madness or in death."

"My mother left."

"She left physically," Darien said, "but it was not until Cjarsa stole her memories that she was truly free. It is a bit death, a bit madness."

"What pains you now?"

"When one of the Mercy feels pain," Darien said, "all do." I knew who she meant before she said the name.

"Lillian, of the Elite Silver Choir, Mercy to Araceli," Darien whispered, "I am sorry. But Araceli put you in my way to Nicias, and I could not spare you."

"Why is she being punished for my actions?" I demanded. "I may not like the job she was given, but she did it. She obeyed Araceli. She did everything she could. I am the one responsible  -  "

"You only as much as I," Darien said. "Neither of us holds as much blame as Araceli. She gave the orders."

"What is happening to her?" No matter where the blame fell, I felt the guilt.

"If you want to see, reach into the Now and look," Darien snapped.

"Sakkri'equa.

That is within your power,

Nici as'ra'o'aona. Follow your own blood. Your father's mother is with her." It was easy.

Too easy.

I thought of doing it, and it was done. I stood  -  immaterial, helpless to act  -  by Lily's side.

There was no sound. Lily uttered no scream and gave no pleas for lenience. Instead, what seemed to grip her was sweeping despair at her failure.

She knew she would survive this.

To her, that more than anything else was agony. She had disappointed her lady Araceli. How could she ever stand to face her again, knowing that she did not deserve Araceli's forgiveness?

Her infinite mercy.

Beside me, I could feel Darien struggling with her own memories, her own feelings of guilt when she had first failed her Empress Cjarsa. There had been no torture then, but I sensed that she might have preferred it.

I tore myself away from the scene, almost back into the

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cl, where there was no suffering or guilt or fury. Lily had betrayed me for a monarch who had repaid her loyalty with... this horror.

Darien's voice reached me just before I crossed into the void, commanding, "Never flee to it.

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cl asks a price when you use it. You do not want to enter it to hide from pain  -  not if you want to return complete."

This she knew from experience.

"Always enter

Ecl willingly, and without demands," Darien advised. "Then it will never hold you. If you seek to abandon your senses, you will lose your soul and self as well." I nodded mechanically and then turned when I heard a swiftly indrawn breath behind me.

"Hello, Servos," Darien said.

Servos nodded respectfully, as if it was perfectly natural for him to be greeted by a woman who had previously been bound and lost to the void. "Darien." He looked at me and said, "It has been three weeks since you first came here. We had given up hope that you would wake."

"Three weeks?" I gasped. I had thought hours, maybe a day, but not weeks.

"You spent much time in the

Ed."

Darien explained.

"Araceli thinks you are lost," Servos said.

How many people thought the same? After all I had experienced in this land, I finally understood why my parents had doubted I would return. Were they now convinced that they would never see me again?

What about Oliza? She would not believe that I had abandoned her  -  would she?

"Darien, would I survive off Ahnmik if I left now?"

She frowned. "Your magic would not kill you."

I nodded, grateful.

Darien, however, did not leave it at that. "Then you are going home now?"

"If Araceli does not try to stop me."

"Araceli does not visit these halls," Servos said. "If you can work illusions to hide yourself, you could leave and no one would be the wiser."

"Why wouldn't you tell them?" I asked.

"I've been the guardian of these halls for too long," he answered. "I wish this madness on no one, and I wish Araceli's mercy on no one. If you stay here, likely you will suffer both." After a moment of contemplation, he added, "And I would hate to see the destruction of two who are so deft in managing

Ec l's swift currents.

Mana'Ecl.

Masters of the void. The title is rarely given these days, with Cjarsa and Araceli valuing mindwalkers and weavers of sakkri more highly, but both of you have earned it. Now...I will leave you two to your own futures."

Darien nodded as he retreated.

Then she demanded, "Nicias, knowing what you do, you are just going to run?"

"I have no reason to stay."

She looked appalled. "Return to Wyvern's Court and you will be just another bird, your talent and power wasted. You will not be able to use your magic lest Araceli sense it and drag you back here. You will never be able to take a mate, because Araceli will know if you have a child, and if it is half outsider, she will kill it. You could do so much here, be so much. You could be  -  "

"Prince," I interrupted her. "I did not want that power when Araceli offered it to me, and I do not want it now."

"But you could fight in ways that I never could," Darien argued. "And still you will not even confront Araceli?"

I met her gaze and asked bluntly, "Could we win if we fought her?"

"You are Araceli's grandson. You are perhaps the only one who could challenge her, could show the world what she has done  -  "

"And if we did win, what would the reward be? Would we destroy Ahnmik? What would our rebellion win us?"

"Justice to the falcons," Darien answered. "For creating a race designed to slaughter. For murdering any who could compete with them."

"You're talking about vengeance," I argued, "not justice." She let out a frustrated screech that drew Servos back. Turning to him, she said, "You know what Araceli and Cjarsa have done. How can you live with them?"

"I am aware of their experiments," Servos admitted. "However, I am also aware of their motivations. You may want to ask Araceli about those someday." Darien laughed, a sharp and biting sound. "I was Cjarsa's Mercy, not the Empress herself. Those two answer only to themselves."

"They would explain themselves to Nicias."

It was my turn to argue. "I don't want their explanations. I won't fight them unless they try to harm Oliza, but I won't listen to any defense for what they did. Araceli has manipulated me too many times already."

Servos sighed. "As you wish. Fly with grace and luck, Nicias Silvermead." He changed shape and departed.

"You were raised among the warring two," Darien said, "and yet you aren't even going to challenge the woman who orchestrated their ancestors' deaths?"

"I am not willing to lose my life for my pride," I answered calmly. "Why should we sacrifice more lives to avenge the lives we lost before?"

"If the avians and serpiente knew what she did  -  "

"Wyvern's Court is prepared to defend itself if falcons try to interfere. If Araceli was not lying, then most of her people cannot even leave this island. If we take a stand here, we will lose. But if we take a stand only on our own land, and only if forced, then we have a chance."

She frowned, but did not argue.

"I was raised a warrior," I said softly. "Any in my position would do the same. The avians and serpiente just ended their war; they want to forget, not rehash old wounds, and the last thing they want is to start another battle."

Darien paced anxiously. For the first time, I noticed the clothing she wore, which had once been very elegant, but now held fine particles of dust. "I will stay here. Maybe I can't win the fight, but for me, this is home even if it is a hated one."

"Araceli will demand that you be turned over to the Mercy the instant you leave these halls."

"Araceli will demand it, yes," Darien replied without seeming to care. "But I am sworn to Cjarsa, and so it is Cjarsa who will decide upon my sentence. If I can remain calm this time, I believe I can convince her to pardon me." Softly, she added, "If I can't, I will make sure that they kill me instead."

"That is your choice," I said, chilled by the simple determination in Darien's voice.

"Though, if you would not endanger my people, you would be welcome in Wyvern's Court."

Darien just scowled and started down the ramp.

I hurried after her, wanting to say goodbye in a friendlier way before we parted.

"I told you I would only offer you the truth," Darien said when I caught up to her. "You don't agree with me. At least you don't agree with Araceli. That was my first fear, that Kel's child would turn into a creature like  -  "

She stopped abruptly, and all the color drained from her face. She took a trembling step forward and then fell to her knees in front of the battered young woman who had commanded all of her attention: Hai.

"My beautiful daughter," she whispered as she drew the girl into her arms, careful not to crush the magic-burned wings. "I never saw her dance. She was only an infant the last time I..." She shook her head. "Except for dreams in the void, I have never even seen my own daughter. I knew she was here, so vulnerable, but I could never..."

"I spoke to her," I said. "In those moments in

Ec l, somehow I spoke with Hai."

Darien smiled, though it was obvious that her thoughts were far away. "Royal blood calls strongly to

Ec l's chosen. And you are not only a royal blood falcon, but sworn to the Cobriana. If anyone could reach my daughter, it does not surprise me that it would be you."

"Isn't there some way to save her?"

"She has no reason to come back," Darien admitted after long, painful moments. "Her magic will always burn her, because of her mixed blood  -  and this city and its inhabitants will always hate her because of it. She loved to dance and she loved to fly, but these injuries have stolen both those passions from her." She touched a gentle hand to her daughter's crushed black feathers. "I don't know what either of us could say that would give her any reason to return."

There were tears in Darien's eyes when she finally looked at me, but behind them was a fragile hope.

"I can help you return home, Nicias, without Araceli even knowing that you are gone. Once I come back here, I will do all I can  -  and if I do win a place by the Empress's side again, I will be able to do much  -  to veil you from Araceli's senses in the future. Otherwise, she will notice your absence swiftly no matter how quietly you leave. All I ask is that you take my daughter to Wyvern's Court with you. I don't think she will wake; there is too much pain for her in this world. But maybe being among her father's people can help her more than I ever could."

I nodded, though it chilled me to realize that Darien never would have offered her help if she had not desired this from me. What she didn't understand was that I would have agreed to take care of Hai without receiving anything in return. Darien was very much a product of this land.

"I will do what I can for her."

Chapter 14

DARIEN WRAPPED the three of us in illusion, saying, "Watch and remember what I do," but warning that I would probably not be able to follow her Drawings beyond the first layers.

She was right. I could understand the pattern that hid us from view, and I thought I might be able to recreate it with practice.

After that, as Darien wove spells to fool each sense, I was lost. I ended up sitting on the floor of the hall, Hai next to me, for I did not know how long. Sometimes it seemed that time dragged, and others it seemed that it was moving quickly. There was no way to tell. Nothing moved but my own breath. Even the signs of life that every creature emits seemed frozen in Hai and Darien. Finally Darien gasped, her eyes opening.

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