Falcondance Page 15

They were not the liquid silver I had become used to, but indigo so dark it was almost black. She hesitated, struggling to focus.

Now,

Darien said,

I need your help. Servos will not betray us, and Cjarsa never looks at the skies anymore. Araceli and Syfka are in conference.

She paused, then commented absently,

They have conversed often of late, though when I stood by Cjarsa's side, they hated each other.

She shook her head, turning her attention back to the present.

I can hide us from the Mercy, but I cannot conceal us from the Pure Diamond without your help. They are sworn to the royal house. If I use your power, I can command them not to see us, and they never will.

That was all the warning she gave before she sent me gasping to the floor, weaving my power into her illusions to veil us from that last threat.

Eons later, she stepped forward and helped me to my feet. She handed me a small soft bundle  -  the belongings I had rescued from my mother's old room. Then she knelt again and lifted Hai into her arms.

"We will need to fly in Demi form if we are to carry her," she said, mentioning nothing of the time that had passed or the effort either of us had put forth. "It will not be quick, but we won't be seen  -  at least, not as what we are. We may appear to be clouds or swift-flying birds or shadows  -  what people expect to see when they look at the sky. Once we reach Wyvern's Court, we will be avians, familiar and unthreatening. The illusion will hold long enough for us to do what we must." I nodded, hoping she was right.

* * *

How we made that flight home I do not know. Demi form is not well designed for swift or sustained travel, so it took us far longer to cross the ocean than it would have if we had been in pure falcon form. Without sleeping, eating, speaking or touching land, we flew for nearly six days.

Sometimes it seemed I was far away from myself, only dimly aware of the beating of my own wings. Sometimes I felt every aching muscle, every breath in my lungs. By the time we reached Wyvern's Court, I was so tired that it took all my energy to guide Darien and myself to the Rookery. I knew only that I needed to check in with Oliza and let her know I was home safe.

My legs collapsed under me the instant my feet touched the familiar ground. Beside me, Darien wavered for a moment before one knee went out and she fell into a trembling kneel, Hai held protectively against her.

Though Darien's magic should have kept anyone from noticing us while we were in the air, we had definitely been spotted. Almost immediately, I saw a familiar wyvern diving toward me from the skies. An equally familiar sparrow followed her closely. My magic cannot conceal a loyal guard from the one to whom he is sworn, Darien said apologetically.

Nor could I possibly hide myself from the woman who used to be my partner in the Mercy. Though perhaps it is best that the first to see us home are your queen and your mother.

Once my mother returned to human form, she protested to Oliza, "I think it would be best if you would allow me to call for your Wyverns."

"The best of my Wyverns is already here," Oliza replied sharply. Darien observed with dark humor,

It seems my magic has not failed to hide you from Kel. If we were still the friends we had once been, she would have laughed when she realized what a fine prank I had managed...

I pushed myself up, wincing as I discovered that my whole body ached, especially my back and shoulders. I withdrew my wings carefully and struggled to present myself to both my monarch and my mother.

For a moment I saw Darien's look of confusion, and I clarified, Most don't wear their wings openly here.

Of course, your land with serpents and hawks.

Her wings rippled and disappeared with far more ease than mine had. My mother drew her blade then and stepped between us and Oliza.

"Kel!" Oliza shouted. "Stand down."

My mother stepped back a pace, but not quite behind Oliza.

Darien had fallen back into at-ready, the respectful position of submission. With the off hand gripping the wrist of the weapon hand, it left her physically defenseless. When Darien spoke, her voice was soft with resignation. "Kel of Ahnmik, Indigo Choir, mindwalker, beautiful dancer and once Mercy to the Empress, you don't recognize me, do you?" She spoke my mother's title in her native tongue, then switched to the language of my home, perhaps in deference to Oliza.

"I don't use that title here," my mother said curtly. "And I do recognize you, vaguely. Enough to recall that you, too, were among Cjarsa's Mercy. It's unusual to see one of that group off the island, but when it happens, it is never good."

"You are here."

She stiffened. "I am an exception. You still wear your falcon form."

"Only to you," Darien sighed. She held out her arm, palm up, displaying a very faint scar on the underside of her right wrist. A symbol of some sort. "Do you recognize this?"

My mother rubbed absently at her own wrist, but she didn't speak. Oliza stepped forward, greeting me formally as she took command of the situation.

"Nicias Silvermead, please report."

My mother frowned, and I saw her eyes widen. She had looked at me before, but Darien's magic had kept her from truly seeing me until Oliza had called me by name. I wondered how my connection to my mother could be less strong than the connection she shared with a falcon she barely even remembered.

"Nicias?" she whispered. Her blade lowered a fraction, but then she strengthened her pose.

I swallowed tightly, watching my own mother face me with a bared weapon. "Mother, I'm  -  "

She brought her weapon up as I tried to move closer, and I saw in her the lessons she had taught me many times. Defend those you are sworn to defend. Do not let yourself be deceived by what you wish to see. Err always on the side of caution. She still did not know whether I was an enemy or her own son.

I looked at Oliza. If vows of loyalty were what made the magic shiver, then perhaps this would help.

"You know me, Oliza," I said. "And I know you. I know that although the young men who court you give you exotic, spicy perfumes, you wear only the mild scent of almond that your mother gave to you. I know that you love to stay up all night listening to the wolves sing. I know that you dream of flying from this place and living in some faraway land." I went to one knee, looking up at my monarch the way I had when I had first gained my title as Wyvern of Honor. "I am sworn loyal to you and would swear the same again."

My mother's blade wavered.

"I know you, Nicias," Oliza said. "I never doubted who you were."

"And the woman with you?" my mother asked.

"Would like to see the Empress rot," Darien replied, causing my mother's eyes to widen.

"And you know none loyal to Ahnmik would speak such, even in an attempt to fool you. I was your own partner in the Mercy, Kel  -  Darien, of the Indigo Choir. I know why you left, though you do not. I would never harm you."

My mother hesitated, but she sheathed her weapon. "That being so..." She glanced at me. "What are you doing back here? I hate to say it to my own son, but if Araceli and Cjarsa are hunting you, you bring grave danger."

Though I would rather have heard assurances of safety and a mother's love at that moment, I understood her concerns. Darien answered for me. "They aren't hunting us. They think Nicias has been lost to

Ec l, an illusion I am happy that they maintain, and I am here only long enough to see your son and my daughter safe; I will return to Ahnmik long before anyone notices I am gone."

She spoke simply, and I knew that the impassive words were all my mother heard. She could not feel the regret and sudden, sweeping loneliness that I sensed from Darien as she looked at a woman who had once given everything to save her.

"Your daughter?" Oliza asked.

Darien stepped back, to kneel by Hai's side. "Oliza Shardae Cobriana, may I present quemak'la'Hai'nesera .

.. Hai, daughter of Anjay Cobriana, late Arami to the serpiente." Oliza's uncle.

I had known that Hai was a cobra, but I had never had a moment to wonder who her father was. For an instant, I was washed by fear. Darien had shown herself to have many motives, none of them selfless. Had I brought home with me a pretender to the throne I had sworn to protect?

Darien dispelled some of my fears as she added, "Her condition, unfortunately, is likely irreversible, but I hope Wyvern's Court may at least make her dreams warmer than they would be on the island."

Oliza nodded, looking as dazed as I felt.

"Kel, please go with Darien and see that suitable arrangements are made for Hai's care," Oliza commanded.

"Are you certain  -  "

"Anjay Cobriana was my father's older brother," Oliza said, sharply. "By law, that would make this young woman Arami before either Salem or me. Circumstance denies her that birthright, but regardless, she is a cobra, she is family, and she is one of my people. If we deny Hai the sanctuary of her rightful home then we are no better than the empress who turned her out.

"Dismissed, Kel. Take care of my... cousin. I wish to speak to Nicias alone."

"As you wish, my lady," my mother replied, subdued. "Nicias, I hope I will have a chance to hear your story soon."

Darien gathered Hai into her arms, along with the bundle of belongings we had brought back with us. My mother's gaze fell on the melos, and she frowned, as if it seemed familiar. Then she nodded at the doorway, indicating that the falcon should leave Oliza's presence first.

She knows she should remember me,

Darien sighed.

She wonders why I am one of the memories the Empress so carefully removed from her mind. She starts to reach for them... and then pulls back.

As soon as they had left, Oliza sighed and leaned back against the wall. "Nicias..." She shook her head and began again. "I would like to question that girl's parentage, but it is as clearly written on her face as mine is. Anjay is the only cobra who ever traveled to Ahnmik. He returned only hours before he fell to the war. Looking at this girl now is like looking at a ghost... a ghost from whom I seem to have stolen a throne. What is wrong with her?"

Now the questions began. This one would be the easiest.

"The magic the falcons use makes them susceptible to something they call the shm'Ecl; Hai's serpiente blood makes her even more vulnerable. I don't know how to explain it, except to say that Darien was telling the truth  -  it is very unlikely that Hai will ever recover." Addressing the worries that had crossed my mind, I added, "Know that she has been raised as a falcon. In the unlikely event that she wakes, I doubt that she will want to acknowledge her serpiente blood, and even if she does, your people love you. They know you. They would never support a stranger as their queen before you." Oliza nodded slowly. "Honestly, this silent cobra is the least of my concerns. There have been three fights in the market since you left, all between serpiente and the avians. I fear that perhaps my hesitation to declare my mate and take the throne is hurting my people, and keeping them apart."

This was the moment when I could say, "I learned on Ahnmik what caused the war." I could tell her what Darien had told me, that the old war and the hatred we still battled had been specifically engineered. I could tell her, and then I would no longer have to hold the dark knowledge alone. But what would that solve?

Oliza was my queen-to-be, to whom I was sworn, and she had for many years been my friend. I had vowed to protect her, and to protect Wyvern's Court, and I would. Sharing this with a people who had only come together now that they had forgotten it would be an evil I did not want to commit.

If anyone could heal the schism that falcon magic had created, it was Oliza.

"Fights in the market are still only fights; they aren't battles," I assured her. "We have come a long way. When you take the throne, you will move this land even further along."

"Soon," Oliza whispered. "I need to speak to my parents. They should know who Hai is... and if ever I have needed advice from them, it is now." She hesitated. "Nicias," she said nervously, "do you plan to remain among my guard, here at Wyvern's Court?"

"Of course," I answered. "If you'll still have me."

"Of course," she answered, as quickly as I had. "It's just that I wonder  -  now that you've seen what you have of the world, and with your magic  -  whether you'll be content. I want you to know that if you do ever choose to leave, I would not fault you for it. Wyvern's Court is a very small piece of the world you have access to." Chilling was the thought that if she had said this to me before I had left, I might have taken her up on it. Without my vows to Oliza making me hesitate, how much more open would I have been to what Araceli offered?

"Either way, you should get some rest before you report to your commander. You still look exhausted."

I wondered if she was giving me time to change my mind if I wanted to. The freedom did not comfort me.

I returned to my home, intending to follow Oliza's advice, only to find Darien there settling Hai into the spare bedroom.

"Hello, Nicias. I assured Kel that you would not mind having Hai near you," Darien said. "Of anyone in this land, you best understand what is wrong with her, and the little that can be done."

I nodded. Even though the idea of Hai living in my home, forever still and silent, unnerved me, I could think of no one else I would trust with her care.

"I must leave now," Darien announced. "I am too tightly bound to the white land to leave it for long." She sighed. "And I have no place here. I envy your mother's freedom, but I cannot stand to look at her as what she now is, and have her look at me as a stranger. She has assured me that Hai will be taken care of, as much as one so deep in Ecl

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