Falcondance Page 18

The destination, I knew, might be worse.

Chapter 16

ONCE AGAIN I landed in Ahnmik's plaza, crumpling to the ground as I returned to human form and desperately tried to catch my breath. The city was dark at that hour, except for the yenna'marl, which reflected the blush of dawn that had not yet crept past the horizon.

I started toward the palace, but hesitated when around a corner in the road I heard the soft conversation of a trio of falcons who had not noticed my arrival.

"I swear it's true. She was wearing the Mercy's uniform," a young man said, his voice hushed. "And arguing with Syfka, loudly enough that everyone on the street could hear her."

"Cjarsa must be mad," another responded. Hastily she added, "Far be it from me to question my Empress's judgment, but to place a traitor back into her favor is..."

"Suicidal?" the third, another man, suggested. "I've heard some say that Cjarsa is all but lost to E cl already. Maybe she hopes Darien will kill her before the void finishes the job." Darien? 

Wanting to know more, I turned the corner, not anticipating the kind of reaction my presence would produce. All three falcons paled at seeing me and went to their knees. The one who had called the Empress suicidal spoke swiftly, pleading, "Sir, forgive me for my rashly spoken words. I am only a simple man. The decisions of my royal house are surely beyond my understanding."

Their fear only made my own worse. If they were so terrified by being caught speaking as they had, what would I face when I spoke to Araceli?

"Stand up," I said. "Please, tell me  -  Darien is back with the Empress?"

"Yes, among her Mercy," the man answered. "She is working beside Lillian." But they hated each other.

"Lily was part of Araceli's guard," I challenged, trying to work out this puzzle.

"The Heir dismissed Lillian," the woman explained.

Probably because she had failed to keep me from Darien.

And now they were working together, beside the Empress. What next?

"Where can I find Araceli at this hour?"

The man who had begged my forgiveness seemed very happy to be able to answer me.

"She is meeting with Syfka, once again. You could wait for her in the forum of the palace; I understand she is supposed to see the Empress next, and the Mercy would not refuse admittance to Araceli's own grandson and heir."

Did I really want to do this?

No.

Did I have a choice?

No.

"Thank you," I said. They seemed startled that I would bother, and even more startled when I walked past them on my way to the palace without saying more. I had not even reached the base of the palace when a pair of guards moved to flank me, shimmering with Pure Diamond power. Before I could speak to them, they broke formation, to allow a quartet of women and men to approach.

Each wore a slender blade on his or her left hip. Gauntlets graced their wrists  -  some leather, and some appearing to be snakeskin  -  and they wore vests of the same material over their looser clothing. Their wings gave them away as peregrine, and the way they dismissed the Pure Diamond who had brought me there gave them away as something else: Araceli's Mercy.

A line of sweat formed between my shoulder blades as I fought the instinct to flee. I faced them with no way to defend myself against what was to come.

"Welcome back to Ahnmik, sir," one of them greeted me. Her eyes were liquid cobalt and flashed with distaste. "The Empress and her heir are separately occupied at the moment. They asked us to detain you and ensure you do not wander off again." It occurred to me that if these four had felt Lily's "punishment" as Darien had, they might have good reason to hate me. "I didn't mean for her to be hurt," I said, raising the topic that I feared was on their minds. "I didn't know  -  " One of the men glared. "Don't worry, sir, Lillian is fine. We're always careful not to irreversibly damage one of our own."

"Follow us, please," another said impatiently.

I followed; I saw no choice, even though my stomach was twisting as if it would turn itself inside out. This was a group of trained fighters, well practiced in magics that I was only beginning to grasp. Even if I fought, I would have no place to go unless I settled things here first.

My parents had found leniency. Painful as it had been, they had received their desired banishment. I hoped I could do the same.

My heart was pounding as I was led to the Mercy's tower. I doubted that if Araceli still hoped to have me as her heir, she would want permanent physical damage done. How much freedom did the Mercy have with me?

The anger I saw in their eyes said they would use all they could. I felt the air pressure build as we walked up the weathered stone staircase to the top of the tower. There were no windows here, and the only light was provided by silver marks that snaked along the walls.

A force hit me, and with it I stopped seeing, hearing, knowing. I couldn't scream, even though the world around me seemed to twist, compressing my lungs and lashing my skin.

In the midst of this, I was blindsided by a sickening guilt for what I had caused to happen, not just to Lily, but to every person I had ever judged. I thought of Araceli and could not summon my fury. I could not summon my resolve or remember why I had made the decisions I had.

She was my father's mother, after all. She had offered me everything, and I had spat on it like an ignorant, ungrateful child.

Vemka'tair'ka'o'ha'nas...

Someone was cursing in my mind, sputtering,

Weakling fool, are you going to let them mind-walk through your brain until you may as well be one of them?

I felt this angry presence fight back, startling the Mercy enough to let me slip momentarily from their grasp.

Ice sliced open my hands as I fell gratefully into the

Ecl'gah, suddenly the sweetest place I had ever been. I wanted to sink into the ice and stay there, numb.

Someone kicked me viciously, flipping me onto my back as I let out a yelp.

"You stain my world, ruin it, and then have the gall to try to give up?" These words were followed by a string of harsher ones, coming from a female figure who was slowly edging into focus. "You invade my dreams and tell me I am a fool for staying here, but the first time you are tested, you hide yourself away and dare to stand before me as a hypocrite."

She dragged me to my feet and pinned me against the cold, black walls of her palace.

"Hai." I blinked in surprise, staring into a pair of furious garnet eyes  -  the ones I had seen long ago in the forest.

She smacked me, and I couldn't help wondering if staying with the Mercy would have been better. "Someone is calling you. Get back there." I shuddered. Maybe I would rather she kept hitting me.

"I will keep hitting you," she snarled. "Eel wants you, Nicias. She wants her price for saving you, and that price might be hundreds of years, enough to destroy your mind completely. Unless you get out now!"

More gently, she said, "The worst is over. Go back."

I swallowed hard, then forced myself to agree, with a condition to make it worthwhile.

"Only if you will."

She cursed and shook her head. "It's been too long. I can't."

"Darien seems to think you can."

"My mother is a fool."

We hung in silence for a moment. Again I felt the tug of the void, so inviting, painless and...

"You must go back," she whispered. "Don't fall here."

"What do you care?" I challenged.

"Damn you," Hai whispered. "I have danced a thousand futures and lived a thousand lifetimes and all I have seen is ashes and ice. You are too  -  You don't belong here. You have things you need to do, out there. Go, Nicias, please."

"Only if you will."

"Swear you'll go back, and I'll try." Her voice was soft and frightened, but the words were enough. "I swear."

"Then I swear as well."

There was blood on the floor when I returned to the

Now

-  my blood, from a dozen lacerations across my back and my hands. There were two women standing above me: Darien and Lily, I realized with relief.

"He's ours now," Lily said, "until the Lady and her heir return." Darien took my hand and pulled me to my feet, smiling a bit. "The Empress believes in keeping a serpent close so she can watch it." She added silently, No better place for me.

Lily regarded me with cool detachment. "You might say thank you."

"Thank you?" My voice broke in my dry, tight throat. "They would have done worse," she said. "Why... did you stop them?"

"Nostalgia, maybe. Believe me or don't, but I did care for you." She shook her head.

"Forgive me for saying, sir, but I've recovered from the affliction." Darien prevented me from replying. "Cjarsa wants to meet with you before Araceli returns. Can you walk?"

"I can walk." I was still dazed, but I recalled enough to say to Darien, Hai saved me.

She gave me a sharp look.

"She spoke to you?"

"She made me swear to return. If she would."

Darien paused, swaying with shock.

"She said the words?"

I went over the conversation with her as we walked.

"A vow spoken to royal blood will bind her to this world," Darien whispered in my mind when I was through. "She will try. And she... may succeed."

We reached the door to the reception hall of the palace, and I felt both Lily and Darien hesitate.

"I do not know how the Lady will receive you," Lily told me. "She and Araceli have been... displeased with each other, lately. I do not know what Cjarsa wants from you." We stepped inside with the care of ones crossing a battlefield.

"Nicias of Ahnmik, you stand before the Empress Cjarsa, she who rules the white towers, lady of moon and mountain, sun and sea." Lily and Darien knelt at the Lady's feet, and Lily continued, "Great lady, allow me to present Nicias of Ahnmik, Nicias Silvermead, mindwalker, mana'Ecl, son of the son of your heir and of Kel, once of the Indigo Choir and of your Mercy."

"Stand aside," Cjarsa said.

They obeyed, moving to the edge of the doorway, though Darien sent me a wry She usually will not lie outright. I hate her and she knows it, but even I must respect her. I faced the Empress of this cold, white land, unable even to imagine what the next few minutes might hold.

Chapter 17

Cjarsa was an eerily beautiful woman, with skin like milk and hair the color of white gold. Her eyes were the same mercury as Darien's, and her lashes just dark enough to set them off, hints of gold in a porcelain face. She wore a gown of deep violet, and the color was striking against her pure fairness.

"Nicias Silvermead, she forgot to add your title Wyvern of Honor." Her voice was musical, as haunting as wind whistling through barren cliffs. "I believe your post as the wyvern princess's guard is the one you respect."

"That is true, lady."

"I am sorry about your rough reception," she said, though there was no regret in her voice. There was no emotion at all. "Araceli's chosen are rather cross with you. I have had to take Lillian into my own employ, as Araceli refuses to forgive her. Though, of course, if you choose to stay, you may have her join yours."

"I have no desire to stay."

She sighed, but again the emotion she tried to portray seemed forced, as if she was not attached to this world enough to feel the way we mortals did.

"Oh, yes, I am far detached from this realm," she said, as if I had spoken my thought aloud. "In my youth I spent time in the void, too much time exploring the illusions of Ecl. Darien will never forgive me for not reaching in and saving her daughter. She knows that I could. But Ecl is a temptation too strong for me. I am already too weary of this realm."

I shivered involuntarily, glancing at Darien without meaning to. The gyrfalcon averted her gaze, jaw set.

"Ignore me, Nicias. Speak to Cjarsa," Darien commanded. "I do not know what she wants, but I do know that she is the only one with the power to keep you from Araceli."

"Nicias, please sit," Cjarsa said, gesturing to a chair to her left. "There are things I need to discuss with you. A proposition I must make."

"Pardon me for being blunt, Lady," I said, "but after my other experiences in your land, I do not entirely trust your intentions."

She shrugged. "Sit, listen. I am not holding you, and I do not plan to. You know too much already about incidents that should have been forgotten in the past. Since our history seems to have proven that the truth has a way of finding the light, it seems best to end this problem here not by stripping that knowledge from your mind but by tempering it with understanding. Listening is not going to hurt you." She glanced at Darien. "We both know that my less-than-loving Darien will warn you if I lie or try to persuade you magically. Her candor is unusual in this land, and one of the reasons I asked her back to my side."

Darien nodded.

"I am listening," I said.

Cjarsa smiled a little, her expression still somehow cold. "I know that Darien has told you of our actions regarding Kiesha's and Alasdair's peoples. While I may not always approve of Araceli's methods, her motivations  -  in this case, at least  -  were correct. If you had lived through the early days after the Dasi split, you would understand the necessity of what was done. You only hate it because you were raised among those you see as most harmed."

"Are you going to argue that they weren't most harmed?" I asked, trying to keep my words even and my head clear of the anger that was surfacing.

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