Falcondance Page 17

"Tar and feathers," Opal cursed. "Gren, you invited a Wyvern here? Why not invite the princess herself?"

Maya snarled, "Kel's son. Your mother is the Lady's Mercy and you have the gall to tell us  -  " She stopped when Gren caught her wrists, keeping her from moving toward me.

"Quiet!" Spark shrieked, sending the room into stunned silence. "Nicias, get out of here. Now. You're not welcome here." She started to reach forward as if to push me, but then recoiled.

I didn't feel the need to stay. I stepped outside, into rain that had started to fall heavily, and heard raised voices behind me.

Spark followed me out, making shooing motions. "Keep moving." She kept pace as we crossed the market, and only when I was back on the doorstep of my own house did she speak again. "Maya has felt the Mercy's wrath before, as has Opal," she said. "Maya's punishment came at the hand of the woman you now call mother. One of them would have attacked you if you had stayed. You're just lucky they didn't make the connection to who your father is, and who his mother is."

"I wouldn't hurt any of you," I assured her. "Neither would my parents."

"Blood will tell, sir."

she said, with none of the respect usually associated with that title, but with a substantial amount of venom. "Mercy's blood and royal blood. You'll be as useless as the rest. I trust," she concluded coldly, "that we won't be seeing you again." Under her breath she added, "And you can be certain that you won't see us, either." Shocked speechless, I could do nothing but retreat with whatever grace I had left. I entered my home, shaking Darien's illusion from myself as I crossed the threshold. How could I have thought, even for a moment, that I might find acceptance among falcons? I was too much a part of Wyvern's Court to be one of them.

No, that excuse was a he. I was too much a part of Wyvern's Court to be happy on the island, but here among the exiles, I was too much a part of Ahnmik. Mercy's blood and royal blood,

Spark had said.

You'll be as useless as the rest.

What had I done, really, besides run from Ahnmik? I had run home to Wyvern's Court, away from the place where I might have been able to make a difference. It wasn't my fight.

The blood of royals may be strong with magic, but it's very thin when it comes to compassion.

I still needed to speak to my parents, yet I found myself drawn to Hai. If anything was my fight, she was, a cobra locked in a falcon's madness.

Arrogance, for me to think I could help her  -  but what choice did I have? Who was I, if not Nicias Silvermead, Wyvern of Honor, sworn to protect the royal houses of Wyvern's Court with every strength I possessed?

I put my hand on Hai's arm, closed my eyes and for the first time reached intentionally toward her nightmares.

The Ecl'gah in which Hai hid from the world had changed since I had left, but I was not sure whether the changes were for the better. Instead of the stark hues of last time, I found technicolor that dazzled the mind.

All around me were rolling fields of what seemed to be crystals as sharp as razors, which glowed in the light and bent m the intermittent wind like blades of grass. The sky was too vivid, a sunset gone mad with scarlet, amethyst and ginger, flames and waves swirling in no natural pattern. High above, a falcon circled, waiting, waiting to descend. The cloying smell of sodden roses stuck to the back of my throat. The wind came from random directions at unexpected times, sometimes warm and sometimes frigid.

"Hai?" I called.

My own voice startled me. For all the disturbed beauty of this illusion, Hai had not woven sound into it. The wind was silent even as it danced past the same black castle I had seen too many times before in the distance.

I walked carefully through the crystal flora, to the moat that still circled the castle. The brimstone and serpents were gone, but the sparkling blue water steamed, and every now and then I glimpsed the back of some great scaled beast as it touched the surface of the water.

I could once again see Hai's silhouette looking down at me from the tallest tower.

"Hai?"

Why do you do this to me?

Her voice was strained.

Why do you give me these dreams? Why must you wrap me with impossible illusions of wyverns and dancers and wings in the air?

I staggered as the ground beneath me shifted. A raven screamed above me, and I looked up just in time to see the poor creature snapped from the air by a gyrfalcon. The falcon broke its prey's neck, scattering black feathers and blood to the ground. Where they landed, the flowers and grass blackened as if brushed by a flame.

"It isn't impossible," I said to her, trying to turn away from the ugly sight. Again the illusion shifted, and baby co bras emerged where the raven's blood had fallen. "Hai, Wyvern's Court is real. I've seen  -  "

One of the cobras, now fully grown, reared up and hissed, flaring its hood. If you believe in such bliss, Hai responded, then I will pity you, poor hopeful boy. I pity you the fall you must soon face. Perhaps you should let the gentle void take you now, before you have to watch your world burn.

"I'm not about to let it burn," I asserted. "And I'm not about to hide here from a difficult path."

She laughed, but the sound was like hot sand across my skin. "Nicias, you are already hiding. You walk in my world and tell me not to hide from my problems, but look what you have done. You are Araceli's only heir. She is not likely to give up on you so easily. Soon she will dare to enter the silent halls, and she will realize that you are not there. She will come to Wyvern's Court, and she will drag you back with her. Perhaps while she is here, she will execute the traitors who hide in the candle shop. Perhaps she will rid the world of your precious Oliza, whose reign she fears so much.

"You swore to defend Wyvern's Court, with your life if necessary," she said, accusingly.

"Do not wait until it is too late."

The temperature dropped as if to match the sudden chill that had taken me as I heard the truth in her words.

No one has danced your future for you, have they ? she asked.

Most fear the sakkri'a'she.

It can burn one's mind, they say, but I spun that magic with almost every breath as I walked the streets of the white city. Let me see if I remember the steps...

"Hai, wait  -  "

I was caught by her magic like a swallow taken by a hawk, slammed from this Ecl'gah and onto the familiar green marble of Wyvern's Court's market plaza, where I held Oliza in my arms. My hands were marked with the blood from her wounds; she was cold and still. As I lifted my gaze, I saw that the land around us had been charred. Oliza's body fell, listlessly, away from me as I stepped back in horror, wanting to flee the image.

"Hai!" I screamed. "This isn't real! Take it  -   Take it away?" she asked me.

This may not be real, but trust me, sweet prince, it is a likely enough future.

"Not one I will allow."

But you have no idea what causes it.

With that reply, she turned the vision, so that instead of being by Oliza, I knelt before Salem Cobriana. Near us, I could hear the shouting of a mob calling for blood, but my magic had pushed them back.

Too late.

Hai knelt next to me, but she did not lift her eyes to mine. "Hai  -  " Would you prefer a path less bloody? You could always walk this one...

I was gone from Wyvern's Court in an instant and then stood in one of the yenna'marl with Lily. When someone knocked at the door, I called out, "Come in," wondering what horror Hai had spun into this threat.

The man who opened the door knelt, not lifting his eyes as he spoke to us. "Sir, the Empress has requested your presence."

"We will be there shortly," Lily said when I hesitated. "We shouldn't keep Araceli waiting."

Then the vision ended, and I was back in Hai's illusion. I

could feel her agitation in the way the ice around me began to shiver. What have you done, Nicias, that topples my Empress from her reign and puts your father's mother on the throne? Or, what have you not done?

Around me, I saw a million versions of myself, a million moments and possible futures. In some, I was Nicias of Ahnmik, heir to the Empress. In others, I stood beside Oliza in Wyvern's Court. In too many, I was left alone with the bodies of those slain. Fail, Nicias... and the white towers fall. And the golden air of the wyvern's rule becomes a hell of silver ice. Swear to me, Nicias, that you will never betray your wyvern queen.

"You know I will not."

Swear it!

The creature in the moat lashed out, wrapping me in a serpentine body covered in blue and silver scales. I tried to retreat from Hai's mind, but found myself held fast; she had taken control of this moment, and I could only struggle feebly against the iron coils.

"I swear I will never betray Oliza."

The world shimmered as I spoke the words.

The creature set me down, and Hai spoke once more.

Then you must never become Ahnmik's prince. Know this, Nicias: There are already very few futures in which Oliza lives to rule

-  and there is not a single one in which you sit on the white throne and the wyvern survives to take her own.

What does that have to do with the Empress?

I asked.

Araceli desires an heir before she betrays my Empress,

Hai whispered, as if in a trance.

Right now, she believes that

Darien lured you into Ecl.

She believes that she can rescue you, and you will be grateful, and she will be able to win you back to her side.

When my mother returns to Cjarsa's side, Araceli will be angry. When she next enters the Halls of shm'Ecl and finds you gone and her plans in ruin, with Cjarsa's favored Mercy to blame, her fury will have no equal in this world. She will turn that anger upon Wyvern's Court as she seeks you, and when Cjarsa tries to calm her, Araceli will turn on my Empress and the white city will turn black...

If you hide, both our worlds will crumble.

You swore to defend Wyvern's Court, with your life if necessary, she repeated. Now it becomes necessary.

"Please, Nicias, do not do this to me," someone whispered, the words making Hai's illusion shiver. "Sweet Ahnmik, I have given you everything. Please, do not take my son from me."

My mother's prayers gently pulled me back from Hai's world. I was back in my home, at Hai's bedside, as if I had woken from a strange dream instead of the violent nightmare I was used to finding in Hai's realm.

I could still feel Oliza in my arms, her body limp and cold.

I looked up to find my mother and father both near me, my mother crying with relief.

"We came to speak to you, and found you..." She gulped. I lifted a hand to my mother's cheek, hating what I was about to do to her. Despite her madness  -  or because of it  -  Hai was right. I couldn't stay here.

"Nicias, please, be careful," my father said. "When your mother told me that you were home, I thought it meant  -  "

"I am safe," I interrupted. I could not stand to hear his hopes when I was about to destroy them. "From my magic, at least. But I can't stay here. I was a fool to think I could.

Araceli will come looking for me sooner or later, and I cannot hide here when it puts all of Wyvern's Court in danger."

I looked at Hai. If she was right, I would not only be endangering my own world, but others' as well.

My father drew a deep breath. "What is it you intend to do?" he asked me.

"Go back." I could hardly say the words aloud. "Confront Araceli, and either convince her to let me go, or  -  " Or what?

If I could not convince her to let me go, I would need to stay on Ahnmik to keep her from threatening Wyvern's Court. How long would it take for her manipulations and persuasion magics to soften my resolve and convince me that I had a place on the white throne of Ahnmik?

I asked my mother, "How true is a vision seen in a sakkri'a'she?" She winced. "No vision seen in a sakkri is impossible at the time it is woven," she answered.

If that was the case, then there was still a possible future in which I sat on Ahnmik's throne  -  and, according to Hai, somehow led to Oliza's demise.

If Araceli would not let me go, then I had only one option: I would give myself to E cl, before I could do more damage.

"Nicias," my mother said, perhaps seeing the dark resolve on my face, "a sakkri can be wrong."

"And it can also be right  -  and that is not a chance I can take. I will not endanger Oliza that way. I will return, if I can, but for now I must leave." My father caught my arm as I turned to go, and I thought that he would argue with me. Instead, he hugged me. "You could not be our son and do less," he whispered. "Even if, right now, I wish you were a little less noble."

My mother added her blessing. "Ahnleh protect you... and bring you home again." I stepped out my door, instinctively reaching to Oliza even though I knew she had no magic and would never hear me.

I will always be loyal to you. But right now, I must leave you. Somehow she did hear. I even felt her reply, faint as it was.

Nicias, what. ..no, I trust you. Fly well.

I didn't have time to question what power allowed her to answer me, or whether perhaps the words were a gift of my own imagination, trying to comfort me. I changed shape, spread my wings and shot into the sky.

The island where I had rested with Lily was drowned in water when I flew over it; no stopping there. I didn't think I could pause even if I wished to. My heart was pounding with fear.

The flight was a battle through rain and wind that made every stroke of my wings heavier and tried to drive me into the sea.

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