Falcondance Page 19

"The magic of Ahnmik balances itself," Cjarsa explained. "Ahnmik is the energy of stillness and silence. It will bring one to Ecl when it is too strong, and he succumbs to sleep.

"Anhamirak's magic is different. It is a magic of wildfires, tornadoes, thunderstorms, bloodshed. Yes, she represents freedom and beauty, but she also represents chaos. When her magic is out of control, it burns. First it will burn out the mind of the user, and then it will destroy what is around him.

"Back in Maeve's coven, Ahnmik and Anhamirak's powers balanced each other. Kiesha and I worked side by side. When the serpiente forced us out, they destroyed that balance. Their magic became as unsteady as ours, but theirs had the power to destroy more than ours ever could.

"When we created the avians, it was more than a way to keep the serpiente from remembering Anhamirak's magic. Avians are part of the serpiente magic, a part we removed but could never destroy. That is why, though they have hated each other for ages, they are drawn together. Each is the missing half of the other's magic. When the pair breeds together, the magic joins in the child. Likely, that first child's magic will never awaken. Even if it does, it will be stunted and sluggish. But over generations...

"If Oliza takes the throne, her heirs will have Anhamirak's magic. It will destroy first them, then their people, and quite possibly the rest of their world as well, until stopped by the only thing that can balance Anhamirak: lack of existence. Lack of anything left to burn."

She shifted her gaze from one of the swirling patterns of magic on the walls to me. "Can you understand, Nicias?"

Could I? Did I?

Perhaps the ends did justify Cjarsa's means, but even if they did, what was there to do? I would still not be part of an effort to launch the avians and the serpiente back into war. Nor could I refuse to let Oliza come to the throne where she belonged. I was no prince, no king; these decisions should never have belonged to me. Cjarsa continued, "We designed the avians to be opposite from all the serpiente believed in, so that even if they were not at war, they could not become one race again. Neither civilization will bend; the only way your Wyvern's Court could truly combine them is to entirely destroy the culture of one. That was intentional. Perhaps they do not need war, but they must not be allowed to keep forcing this merge, either."

"I am not loyal to you, or to Araceli, or to Ahnmik," I answered. "I have already refused to be part of an uprising in your land, so you need not fear that from me, but never will I betray my queen-to-be by helping sabotage the people of Wyvern's Court. So, please, tell me plainly what you want with me."

"How far does your loyalty stretch?" Cjarsa challenged.

"Even in Wyvern's Court, there are many who are wary of the time when Oliza will come to the throne. No matter who she chooses, there will be those who hate her mate enough to consider killing him, and maybe your queen as well. And after that, will your loyalty stretch so far that you would let a wyvern's blood destroy the world she rules?"

"I find it difficult to believe that you could perform a magic strong enough to rend the serpiente of half their power and give it to another race," I said defiantly, "and yet you cannot do anything to protect this potential child from herself."

"I am no longer the young fool who once dove recklessly into Ecl and warped Fate herself to her will," Cjarsa sighed, her voice distant once again. "I have neither the strength nor the power to do such a thing a second time."

"Araceli bound my parents' magic so that it would not destroy them," I said, thinking aloud. "If the child showed magic, couldn't it too be bound?"

"Nicias, it has been many long years since I have been able to feel a summer wind on my skin, or hear the music of a choir, or savor fresh fruit. I can see Ahnmik's power, and so I can control it, but I am blind to Anhamirak's warmth. Asking me to bind her power is asking me to paint in red and blue a sunrise that I can see only in gray. I could rip the magic from the child entirely, but I could never control it otherwise."

"If that is the only way you will let Oliza's child live, the people of Wyvern's Court could live without magic. They always have."

Cjarsa shook her head sadly. "The serpiente, the avians, they are creatures of Anhamirak's fire. They may not use it consciously, but it is what gives them their scales and their feathers. It is what makes them immune to the plagues and weaknesses that infect humans. If you take it from them, they will die. That is what am'haj, the poison Araceli designed and gave to the avians to help them fight the serpiente, does: rekindle the dormant magic that long ago split Anhamirak's power between Kiesha and Alasdair, and allow that ancient spell to destroy what is left."

I lay my palms flat against the wall, thinking of all the lives that had been lost. There had to be a way to solve this that did not involve the destruction of Wyvern's Court and a return to the horrors of the past. I jumped as the doors to the hall slammed open. As I turned toward the violent intrusion, I saw Darien and Lily draw their weapons, moving between Cjarsa and the interlopers. Though I would have sworn that the four of us had been alone, two more guards appeared as if they had melted from the walls.

Araceli stood with her wings held tightly to her back in the way of an avian warrior. Syfka stood to her left; two of Araceli's Mercy were to her right.

"This is low, Cjarsa," Araceli spat. "You stay in your palace hall all day and night, drifting almost as badly as the shm'Ecl.

When you emerge, first you take traitors under your wing  -  traitors who should be shorn of their wings for treason and worse crimes. And now you try to turn my own blood  -  "

"You are looking for an excuse for your uprising," Cjarsa interrupted. "Nicias was never loyal to you; do not accuse me of turning him against you."

"I can accuse your precious Darien of that crime," Araceli answered hotly. "And we all know to whose hand she has always belonged."

Darien laughed, never allowing her blade to waver or her attention to falter from Araceli and her guards." If this became a battle, who would I fight for? Would I fight, or could I flee? Araceli wants Cjarsa dethroned. She accuses Cjarsa of being an idle Empress over a stagnant land," Darien whispered to me. "She wants to take power, and build Ahnmik in the great image she sees. She wanted you for her heir, a loyal addition to her power after she disposes of her obstacles. Obstacles like Cjarsa."

I jumped as Cjarsa spoke to me, her voice like ice. "Araceli craves power; she has no understanding of balance. And it looks as if she has turned my Syfka against me now, as well." She spoke on this point. "Syfka, beautiful aplomado, has she wooed you to her madness as well? Has your time off Ahnmik stained you so badly that you cannot see the danger in Araceli's plans?"

Araceli did not allow Syfka to answer. "Your aplomado was the one who first considered destroying you."

I saw Darien frown. Her command was like a shove.

Look at Araceli, Nicias, and tell me what you see. Araceli is power hungry, but she has never been insane. If she fights here, even if she kills Cjarsa, she will fall. When Darien said look, she meant with magic. Cjarsa and Araceli continued to argue, the Empress's voice getting softer as Araceli's grew louder, but I ignored all that as I tentatively reached out to my father's mother.

Movement.

I stumbled as a wave of Darien and Lily's magic crossed the room, knocking back the two Mercy that Araceli had brought with her. I reached out at the same time that Araceli retaliated. Her magic slammed into me like a tsunami, forcing the breath from my lungs. As the power flooded over me, I recognized the pattern hidden in it. The design was infinitely complex, woven through thoughts that Araceli had long harbored, but on the most basic level, it was the same as the persuasion magics Lily had once used on me. They were well disguised, so subtle and yet so tightly wound that their creation had surely taken years, decades perhaps. Araceli was blind to them the way I had been blind to Lily's. Cjarsa could not delve deeply into this power without drowning, and so she must not have seen it. And the Mercy could not read the lines because they seemed to have been put in place by one of royal blood. Darien only suspected their existence. I threw the knowledge at Cjarsa and her four guards and felt them react. The two in back had gone to Cjarsa's side to defend her, but Darien and Lily moved forward. When Darien knelt and touched my brow, I shuddered, drawing breath for the first time since I had fallen.

"Would you kill your own kin to win this fight?" Darien asked softly, eyes lifted to Araceli. As she forced me to breathe and my heart to beat, I felt her using my power to read the magic Araceli wore.

Araceli shuddered. For the moment of indecision, the persuasion magics wavered. Suddenly I made the connection. Darien had said that Araceli would not survive if she forced this fight. If she and the Empress both fell, Syfka would be next in line  -  unless I stayed as Araceli's heir. No wonder Syfka had wanted me gone and had "helped" my father to flee years before. She had been planning to destroy both royals for years, but new ones kept appearing. Lily walked past Darien. I caught a glimpse of a peculiar magic, which could be only the bond among the Mercy, being funneled into Lily. It left three of Cjarsa's Mercy all but defenseless, but Lily as strong as all four combined.

Lily spoke to Syfka, as quietly as Darien had, "Beautiful aplomado, there's no need for you to fall with the heir."

Syfka's wings snapped open, aggressive. "Drop your weapon, Lillian," she commanded.

"I guard the Empress first," Lily answered, "and her house second. You are part of that house, and I hesitate to fight you unless I must. So I ask you, stand down." Araceli must have felt the strands of Syfka's magic and was unraveling them slowly, because she was shuddering like one coming out of a deep, cold sleep. She was watching Syfka warily, too, and I knew that she had also realized why the aplomado had worked so hard to send Araceli's heirs away.

"My lady," Syfka began. She never finished.

Lily and Araceli both turned on the traitor at the same time. No physical weapon was ever used, but Syfka crumpled, her wings dissolving back into her body. Magic wrapped around her, a net to hold her in place.

"Nicias Silvermead," Cjarsa addressed me as her guards hauled the still form up.

"You've already seen more of our quarrel than you should have." Araceli opened her mouth to protest, then shook her head, averting her gaze. "Lady..." She did not say more.

"Say goodbye to Sebastian's son, Araceli. Nicias must return to his own people." Cjarsa looked back at me. "He is an intelligent child. When the time comes for him to choose whether to follow his queen or not, he will choose well."

I would have to tell Oliza what I knew and give her Cjarsa's warnings, but she was my queen, and it was not my place to make decisions for her. Hopefully I could get her to delay the day she would choose her mate and take the throne. In the meantime, I would practice what I had learned from Darien. Cjarsa might be too lost to Ecl to touch Mehay, but I was not. I hoped that by the time Oliza reigned, I might have the control to protect any child of hers from itself. Araceli sighed and knelt beside me.

"May I leave now?" I asked. "With your blessing?" She hesitated. Then she kissed my forehead and withdrew the magic she had harmed me with.

"One last word before you go, Nicias," she answered. "Oliza is very fond of you, true? I know she sees in you a kindred spirit."

I swallowed tightly. "I like to think that is true. "We have been friends most of our lives."

"Be careful that someday soon that interest doesn't turn into more than friendship," Araceli warned. "I'm sure you understand how deadly it would be for you to take her as your mate. Adding falcon blood to a wyvern's would be a poor idea. But not so much a problem, as both the serpiente and the avians would kill you before they would allow you to stand as king."

Of that I had no doubt. "I love Oliza in many ways, Lady, but I have no desire to be her king. If I wanted to rule, I could stay here." That would not change, though Araceli's warning had made me think of something else. "But if in another world it was possible for falcons and serpiente to be together, wouldn't our magics balance each other, as they once did before Maeve's coven split?"

"Perhaps," Araceli admitted. "Perhaps the child would be able to wield both magics, without losing control of either. Imagine the kind of power she could have, and combine it with the right to reign she would inherit. Neither you nor your mate would have the strength to control her, and absolute power is as dangerous as Ahnmik's ice and Anhamirak's fire combined."

"Absolute power like you and Cjarsa have in this land?" I asked. Araceli looked amused as she answered, "I know what you think of our realm, ra'o'ra. Go now, Nicias. If you return to Ahnmik in the future, you will always be greeted as my heir, whether you choose to stay for an hour, for a year, or forever. Cjarsa will not allow me to hold you here, so I will leave the decision up to you. Perhaps if the offer remains open, you will one day accept. Until then, fly with grace, fly with purpose, fly with strength."

* * *

When I returned to Wyvern's Court, I paused only to change my clothes quickly and wash the blood from my skin before I sought Oliza.

She was sitting on a grassy knoll with her cousin Salem, and a couple of their friends. Marus was also sitting with them, close enough to Oliza for his hand to touch hers. She was so young, I realized as I approached her. What I had seen and learned on Ahnmik made me feel ancient.

I had removed all magic from myself, so the crowd recognized me as I approached. Oliza smiled when she saw me.

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