Falcondance Page 16

's realm ever can be." She paused, then said, "The magic on you will fade in time no matter what I do. If you wish to remove the illusion spells earlier, I am sure you will be able to."

"What is it you plan to do on Ahnmik?"

She raised a brow. "Commit treason, naturally, with no less than the Empress's blessing." She smiled wickedly. "This is a suggestion I do not make lightly," she added more seriously, "but if ever you return to Ahnmik, you could yet claim your place as Araceli's heir. Return to the center, and see what you can do from there." I shook my head. "It isn't my world. I won't join it to change it."

"Pity. I will probably not see you again for a long while. Don't forget me." Forget this falcon? For better or worse, I could not imagine ever forgetting my encounters with Darien. "I won't," I vowed.

"If something does go wrong, and Araceli finds you gone, I will do my best to warn you, so that you will have time to flee Wyvern's Court before the falcons come for you." Unexpectedly, she hugged me. "I borrowed a feather of your soul once, borrowed and kept it safe," she whispered in my ear, as she had during our first meeting. "It told me that you would destroy an empire. Perhaps that empire was not the white towers of Ahnmik or the walls of Wyvern's Court. Perhaps it was the black castle of Ecl'gah

. If you ever do manage to wake my daughter, call to me, please." Goodbye, Nicias.

The last words floated back to me like an afterthought as Darien disappeared out the door. I watched her form shimmer into that of a beautiful black-and-white gyrfalcon and slice through the sky like an arrow.

Goodbye.

Chapter 15

KNOWING THAT I had done my duty  -  reporting to Oliza and ensuring Hai's safety

-  I was finally able to relax. I could barely stay on my feet long enough to reach my own bed, where I collapsed, still fully dressed. I fell instantly into soft, sleek oblivion. I dreamed of a beautiful dancer, with wings as black as night. She performed on a dais in the center of Wyvern's Court, so beautiful and yet achingly lonely. Around us, the day began to dawn, warm and golden. Her eyes were closed, but she shuddered when the first light touched her.

Abruptly, her eyes shot open, as if she had just realized where she was  -  not in her dreams, but in mine. She turned to me with an angry hiss.

The world shattered, and I threw up my arms to protect my face  -

Again I woke with blood on my skin, though the marks were not as bad as they had been in the past. At least this time Hai had been pulled into my dreams, instead of the other way around.

Over time I hoped I would be able to protect myself from her better as I slept. For now I did what I could to heal the marks she had left behind  -  both the cuts and the visible black bands.

Though I had not been hungry before, I was suddenly famished. Lily had warned me that this would happen.

The thought of her was like a knife in my stomach. I forced it away as I dressed and stepped out of my home.

After I ate, I would try to remove Darien's illusions from myself, and then I would seek out my parents. After that, I would ask my commander's permission to return to my post.

For now Darien's magic was still hiding me, and walking through the market as a nondescript avian man was an unnerving experience. I smiled and chatted about the weather with the merchant who sold me my breakfast, and then I continued through the crowds.

For the first time, I wasn't an outsider, a falcon in a realm of serpents and avians. I wasn't known as a Wyvern of Honor, one of Oliza's personal guards. A group of avians were gathered near the majestic statue that marked the center of Wyvern's Court, talking quietly among themselves. They nodded polite greetings to me as I passed, then continued to speak.

"  -  but imagine, my son on a dancer's stage," one woman was saying. I slowed slightly, to listen. "Naturally, his father would have forbidden it outright, but I thought it best to let the boy try." She shook her head, making a tsk-tsk sound. "I worry for him, but you have to let them out of the nest someday. A more dignified pastime would have been my preference, but he just tells me I'm old-fashioned when I say things like that."

"Boys will be boys. He'll come home soon enough. Though let me say, I am relieved to see that our princess's interest seems to be focused on a young man with nicely traditional values," one of the women replied. "I saw her with Johanna's son Marus the other day. They make a simply splendid couple. He's just the type to help her settle down."

The conversation was drowned out by a pair of serpiente. The two were laughing so hard at something that they had thrown their arms across each other's shoulders just to remain standing. The three avian matrons glanced at them disapprovingly.

"Jaye, I've been looking all over for you," someone said, grabbing my arm. I turned to him, sure he had mistaken me, and for a moment my head spun. Out the corner of my eye, I saw a wreath of falcon magic, and inside it a fair, slender young man with pale violet eyes. As soon as I was looking directly at him, however, the illusion of an avian youth returned.

He pulled me away from the crowd, and I went willingly, curious. As soon as we were away from the group, he asked softly, "Who is the black-winged dancer?" What?

I thought, mute with shock.

You're not the only one hiding here, the stranger said.

Now tell me who the black-haired dancer is. She was dreamwalking last night, and it wasn't pleasant for any of us. You're the only newcomer here, so it seems likely that you might be responsible.

I did not know or trust this young man. I wasn't about to confide in him about Hai. I tried to change the subject instead.

Others are here?

He had to be talking about falcons.

We had left the crowded areas, and he returned to normal speech. "You're here. Why should it surprise you that others are, too? Though I will admit that I had been worried. I had heard that the Heir had bound her, to stop her from helping others flee the island. No one else has come here in years."

"Her?"

He gave a long-suffering sigh. "Darien. I can see her magic on you. I would not have spoken to you if I hadn't."

So Darien had smuggled a couple of falcons out of Ahnmik over the years. It did not surprise me. But the knowledge did make me a bit more at ease with this stranger, enough so to answer his question.

"The dancer is named Hai," I answered. "She is Darien's daughter." He winced. "She is lost, then?"

I nodded. "Darien says royal blood might call to her strongly enough  -  " The falcon snarled a curse. "True, but the royal house does not risk itself by wading into the void. The blood of royals may be strong with magic, but it's very thin when it comes to compassion."

Clearly Darien's magic had not completely failed to hide me. This stranger knew that I was a falcon, but he did not know that I was Nicias, Araceli's own grandson. He continued to vent. "Even Servos, the guardian of the halls, will watch them for a million years more before he ever considers trying to save one of them. Darien is the only one I've known who is brave enough to swim the still waters, but even she is barely strong enough to keep from drowning. It cuts her every time she tries." He shook his head as if to shake loose a dark memory. "I wish I  -  any of us  -  could walk the

Ecl'gah like Darien can. Maybe we could bring Hai back to her. Nothing less could possibly repay her for all she has done." He sighed. "If wishes were feathers, vipers would fly. None of us share Darien's talent in the

E cl, or her ability to mindwalk. We'd need both to even seek Hai out." There was a moment of silence as we walked farther, toward the primarily avian section of the area. I spent it considering this new information. I had thought that Darien's fight on Ahnmik was active. It had not occurred to me that her "treason" consisted of smuggling others into Wyvern's Court or rescuing them from E cl.

"I must get back to my shop," the falcon said. "If you have a few moments, many of us gather there at midday for lunch; I could introduce you to the rest."

"Thank you." The temptation to meet others who knew the place I had fled, and who understood what it was to be a falcon in this land was overpowering. "If I'm not imposing, I would be honored."

"Never imposing," he assured me. "Hiding who you are gets lonely, and loneliness is the fastest way to join the shm'Ecl."

My guide knocked on his own door. A petite girl, with blond hair tumbling loose across her shoulders, barely silvered in the front and showing no hint of blue or violet, answered the door.

She stepped back warily after recognizing my host, watching me with open distrust and revealing two others: a woman tending the fire across the room, and another young man who had yet to acknowledge my entrance.

"Who's he?" the woman by the door asked.

"Darien's newest, apparently," my host replied. "And he brought Hai with him." I offered my hand. "I haven't introduced myself  -  "

"Not to be rude, stranger," the woman replied, "but I would prefer not to know. The less I know, the less valuable I am, the less of a danger I am to the Lady, and the less reason she has to find me. Understand? So don't tell secrets here, and that includes who you are. Just be content that we know the white city as you do." I hesitated, debating whether I should leave. I craved this company, but these people would not be so welcoming if they knew who I was.

"Pardon my friend's melodrama," my host said, chuckling. "She's been the most affected by the black dancer's dreams. It's true we don't share the names we were known by on Ahnmik here; no need to give that away in case one of us was found. But I'm called Gren in Wyvern's Court. That is Spark. Maya was the charming young lady who greeted you first, and that sullen fellow in the corner is Opal. That done with, would you care for anything to eat, or drink?"

"Gren, why are we being so polite to this stranger?" The question came from Maya, who was eyeing me warily. "We know nothing about him."

"He wears Darien's magic," my host answered. "That's enough for me."

"He also wears some other magic," Opal broke in. "Or am I the only one not blind to that?"

Gren frowned. "Don't try to make trouble again here. I won't have it." Opal stood up and walked through a back door without a word, leaving his companions shaking their heads.

"Opal is not the friendliest of us," Gren said, apologetically. "But considering our situation, his suspicion is natural."

"Your situation... Hasn't anyone ever considered speaking to Oliza and asking her permission to be here? I'm certain she would grant it, and then you wouldn't need to hide so much  -  "

"Ask protection from the near-queen of a civilization on the verge of suicide?" Spark laughed. "Obviously you haven't been here long. No one knows who will rule next, or if this court will even still exist. It has already segregated, avians on one side of town, serpiente on the other. I've heard the dancers threaten to leave Wyvern's Court if it's true that Oliza plans to make that crow Marus her king. Of course, those threats are no worse than the ones started by avians a while back, when it seemed Oliza might choose a serpent. The turmoil makes it possible for us to hide, and we're grateful for that, but when the wyvern chooses her mate, she may well push this world back to war  -  and you should never trust yourself to someone who might be powerless." Her matter-of-fact words were a kick in the gut. I knew the politics that would confront Oliza when she wanted to take a mate, but the casual assumption that Wyvern's Court was doomed was chilling.

"Perhaps the two cultures can keep from killing each other for a while," Spark stated,

"but from birth to death they are as opposite as they can be. They can't exist together, and if they try to force it, the result can only be bloodshed." Designed to be enemies.

There had to be a way to derail Araceli's plots, but I didn't know what it was. Not yet. I tried to argue. "If they've come this far  -  "

"They've come this far only to find that they can't go any further," Spark interrupted.

"The two cultures are able to coexist temporarily  -  they've shown that  -  but asking them to combine like this land does is asking a snake and a bird to live together. Either the bird needs to give up the sky, or the snake needs to give up its earthen den. Both options demand too much."

Opal had returned to the doorway and was studying me. "I've realized where I've seen those marks before."

"Where?" I asked without thinking, but as I met his gaze, I instantly regretted it.

"On the Mercy," he said angrily, "when someone fights them. When they mindwalk and something goes wrong. On the Lady's chosen executioners."

Swiftly I realized what he had seen: some lingering vestige of magic from my moments with Hai in the

E cl. And I knew what he was afraid of. "No," I said quickly. "I know what you're thinking, but  -  "

"I don't care if you have Darien's magic on you," Opal challenged. "The only ones who come here with your power are from the Mercy, or are Pure Diamond. The Lady's hand, either way."

"I'm not working for Cjarsa or Araceli or any falcon," I protested. "I was born in Wyvern's Court  -  "

"Mongrel?" Maya interrupted.

"What? No," I answered, hastily enough to make even me flinch. When had I picked up that prejudice? "I tried to introduce myself earlier. My name is Nicias Silvermead  -  " Gren rose to his feet so quickly that the stool he had been perched on toppled over, his mouth opening and closing in silent protest.

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