Falcondance Page 2

"True," I answered, thinking of my own dreams of flying and flying... until I reached the white shores of Ahnmik, an island that lay in a sea I did not know. Time passed in companionable silence as we sat on the beach, waiting for the tide to come in and the waves to lap across our toes.

I found that when I looked into the sea just the right way, the ripples where the sun hit the water looked like writing. I mentioned it to Oliza, but she just shook her head.

"Not from this angle," she answered. She leaned toward me, black hair brushing my shoulder. I caught the faint fragrance of almond, a scent she often wore, and had a momentary desire to wrap an arm about her waist.

I fought down the impulse.

It was impossible to count how many times over the past few years I had been tempted to say or do something just as stupid as putting an arm around her now would be. Finding nothing in the waves, Oliza shook her head again. "I think perhaps you've had too much sun, Nicias Silvermead."

"Perhaps."

She looked at me strangely for a moment, maybe hearing something in my voice  -  a hint of longing for all things impossible.

"We should get back," she said as she stood. "We'll be late for dinner as it is. Again." I pushed myself to my feet, brushing sand from my clothing. "Race you?" I challenged her, to break the tension.

Her eyes lit as she teased, "Do you need a head start?"

"Hardly," I answered haughtily, which earned me a handful of sand in the chest.

"Fine, then."

She took off like an arrow in flight, gaining air on me almost immediately. The lead she had now would diminish later; Oliza was always the faster flier at first, but she paced herself poorly, and during a longer flight I was almost always able to overtake her. I let her pull ahead, not pressing my speed yet, and heard her challenging cry as the wind carried it back to me. The air was clear, and I kept an eye on her, but did not fret about the distance between us; I did not fear for the wyvern's safety, not in these skies. One thing I would never regret about being a falcon was flight: the warmth of the sun even as it was quickly sinking in the west; the ground rushing by, far below; and the steady beat of wings. I complained about my falcon blood sometimes, but never would I complain about having a falcon's power in my wings. I let out a whoop of joy as my sleek feathered body cut through the air.

Chapter 2

RIVERS, MOUNTAINS, fields and trees stretched out below me, their contours forming complex patterns I could never quite follow. And around it all danced the wind, moving east and west, dragging the clouds above and the leaves below. That day it seemed almost as if I could see the lines as they formed, rippled, moved and reset. If I could only pause to look at them  -

And suddenly I lost the rhythm not only of the Earth but of the sky and felt myself falling as fast as a stone toward the ground that seemed to rush up to catch me. With too much effort I twisted in the air, changing the fall to a dive. A natural peregrine falcon can stoop at two hundred miles an hour as it dives for its prey, and I used every ounce of that ability now.

When I reached the ground, I slammed into human form, my heart pounding, breath labored, palms on cool dirt below me as I fought to keep from retching. What had happened?

One doesn't forget to fly any more than one forgets to breathe. I could think of a million things and never miss a wing stroke. So what had happened?

I tried to stand and found that I was trembling not with shock, but with pure exhaustion. I caught my breath as my gaze fell upon a pair of eyes the color of blue opals. There seemed to be nothing beyond them  -  no forest, no sky  -  just those icy gems looking at me from some world beyond this one as if startled by my presence. The air seemed frozen, and I recoiled  -

Then the eyes I saw were not blue, but liquid silver. They regarded me with curiosity, and a woman's voice said gently, "Nicias  -  "

Mercury bled into garnet as her silver gaze gave way to twin pools of blood, still as death, and furious at my intrusion  -

Get out.

The words shot through my mind, the woman's voice familiar but at the same time unlike any I had ever heard.

Again I was on the ground, as if that third woman had shoved me away. Illusion, hallucination  -  I didn't know what to call the visions. That final gaze had looked like a cobra's. I pressed my cheek to the rough bark of the tree, trying in vain to figure out what was going on.

Oliza must have arrived home by now and hurried to dinner, either expecting me to follow or thinking I was already there. Again, I had left her unguarded when it was my duty to protect her. There was no room for a weakness that left me unable to do that. Another, more chilling thought occurred to me. What if Oliza had been under this spell, too?

I pushed myself up, forcing my limbs to stop shaking. I needed to find Oliza. I changed shape and pressed into the skies, cursing the lethargy that seemed to make my wings heavy and awkward.

What had happened to me?

I knew one person who might be able  -  and willing  -  to explain. Lillian. But I wouldn't be able to speak to her until later that night.

Now I had to find Oliza. I went straight to the Rookery and was relieved to find her safe in the dining area. Her cheeks were still flushed from the flight, so I could not have been out as long as I had thought. She shot me an amused, triumphant glance that said she would needle me later for having finally lost a race to her. Then she politely turned her attention back to the crow with whom she had been speaking.

My mother had been at the Hawk's Keep with Danica Shardae the past few days, but she did not leave the Tuuli Thea to greet me, or even to ask why I was late. My father was engaged in a conversation with the Diente, Zane Cobriana, and looked up only long enough to frown at my tardiness.

I would hear about it later, but duty had always come first to both of my parents. Oliza did walk over to me, which prompted Gretchen  -  the python who led the Wyverns  -  to do the same.

"Silvermead  -  "

Oliza's friendly voice cut off what would probably have been a chastisement of me.

"Next time we race, I'll give you a head start," she offered. To Gretchen, she added,

"You can hardly blame him for being late when I'm the one who kept him, can you?" If only that were the truth.

Dinner, despite the presence of the Tuuli Thea, the Diente, most of the royal family and a few members of the court, was a relatively informal event. I would have liked to talk to Oliza more, but most of her attention was dedicated to her parents and her more insistent suitors.

A crow named Marus pulled Oliza aside when we were through. Though he had been born in the Hawk's Keep, Marus had moved here with his family when he was ten, and he had been courting Oliza with all the careful charm of an avian gentleman for the past few years. He was among the most tolerable of her suitors, and tried to be open-minded despite his very conservative upbringing, but I doubted he would ever care to watch Oliza perform one of the serpents' dances.

In some rumors he was named the next king, but those were rumors started by gossips who knew nothing. Oliza spoke of Marus the same way she spoke of many of her suitors  -  with some fondness, but nothing more.

"If you have the time," Marus said, any nervousness flawlessly hidden behind a shield of avian self-control, "I was wondering if you might like to walk with me this evening."

"Unfortunately, I've promised my night to the dancers," she answered. "But if you would like to escort me to the nest, I wouldn't mind the company." Marus hesitated, as I had known he would. The nest was located on the southern hills of Wyvern's Court, in an area that was primarily serpiente. Although avians were not banned from the area, they were somewhat out of place.

Wyvern's Court was not yet a perfect blend of the two worlds. Many serpents were just as hesitant to walk the northern hills as Marus was to walk the southern ones. I believed, however, that every generation would step farther across the valley. Many others of my generation would make the effort specifically for Oliza.

Then Marus nodded, as if he had weighed the benefits of walking with Oliza against the unease he still felt around serpents and found the former worth the latter. I followed them to the doorway, then saw Oliza take Marus's arm and felt a pang of envy.

"It kills you to watch her walk away with him, doesn't it?" The soft voice startled me so much that I jumped, though by then I should have been used to Lillian's quiet coming and going.

I turned to Lily with a sharp look, then regretted it as her gaze dropped.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I just hate to see that expression on your face, knowing that she either doesn't see it, or doesn't want to."

"It's better that way," I said.

"Better... yes," she echoed, the words hollow. "I hope this evening is your own, at least. I need to talk to you."

"I'm not on duty tonight." Oliza never took a guard to the dancer's nest. Looking more closely at Lily, I realized that there was sorrow in her gray-blue eyes. "Is something wrong?"

Lily lived in constant fear of what might happen if someone discovered that she was not the simple raven most people saw when they looked at her.

I had tried many times to convince her to tell Oliza the truth, but she had refused. Perhaps you are right, she had said once when pressed, and your Oliza would never betray me to the rest of her people, but I cannot afford to take that chance. A falcon will always be an outsider here, someone to fear and hate and avoid. She had apologized almost instantly, but her words had still cut deeply. Too true. At least I was familiar in these lands, the son of two respected members of the Royal Flight, and one of the princess's elite guards. Otherwise, I doubted my living here would be tolerated.

I was not prepared for Lily's answer.

"I've just received a summons from Araceli," she said. Araceli.

It was always jarring to hear Lily say, without hesitation, a name my own parents never dared utter. The heir to the falcon Empress was my father's mother  -  and she had disowned and exiled him before I had even been born. It took a moment for me to register the rest of Lily's statement: "I'll be returning home within the next few days." Lily had never pretended that she would be in Wyvern's Court forever, but the suddenness of this hit me like a shock of cold water.

"Will I see you again?" My voice sounded faraway to me. I knew what the answer would be.

"Probably not," she replied. "I was granted this leave to see Wyvern's Court because I lost someone very dear to me in Araceli's service, and she believed I should be given some time of my own. You must agree that two years was a very generous reprieve. Now I have responsibilities to which I must return."

I did agree, and I did understand. I just didn't know what to say now. When Lily and I had first met, she had been like a window to a land that had always fascinated me. In the past two years, she had become one of my few friends in Wyvern's Court. Besides Oliza, Lily was the one person who looked at me not as a falcon, but simply as Nicias.

"Nicias!" Her sharp tone made me jump. "Have you been this distant all day?"

"I'm sorry."

"What happened?" I did not want to burden her with the events of my day, but before I could change the subject, she caught my hand in hers. "Nicias, you aren't normally distractible, yet I can see that it's taking an effort for you to keep your attention on me. You look exhausted. Please, talk to me."

I took a deep breath and tried to focus. "It's probably just fatigue. I've had nightmares the last several nights, and haven't been sleeping well." I shrugged. "I keep thinking about things that happened years ago and completely losing track of time." I tried haltingly to describe what had happened during my flight with Oliza, and watched her face turn pale.

"Nicias... have you spoken to your parents about this yet?" I shook my head.

"Que'le'kaheah'hekna-a'tairferat'jarka-takmu!"

Though I was not quite fluent, I had studied the old language for years; what little I could understand of the string of profanity Lily spat out made it clear why my tutors had not taught me the rest. "You have to tell them," she asserted, in a more familiar language. "They might have left Ahnmik, but they're falcon-born, and they deserve to know. I need  -  I need to speak to my lady."

Despite the fear I could hear in her voice, she sounded excited. "Wait," I called as she turned to leave.

She darted back and kissed my cheek. "Go, speak to Kel now. I must speak with your father's mother."

I winced as Lillian evoked my lineage again.

My hand lost its grip on Lily as she shifted shape and a raven shot into the air. Even though I knew that the bird I

saw was a product of magic, an illusion, I could never make out the peregrine falcon she said was her true second form.

I watched the raven disappear on the horizon, fearing that I would never see her again or have a chance to say goodbye.

Suddenly I heard her voice, as clear as if she was standing beside me. Do not worry, Nicias. I have easier ways of speaking to my lady than flying all the way back to the island. I will stay near, and you will see me again, soon. Magic? Lily had always been discreet with her power. But now she had given me a taste of what I had never had... and had assumed I never would.

I took my own falcon form, obeying her command to seek my parents. An idea, a strange hope, was beginning to take shape in my mind, but I didn't know whether it was a combination of dreams and fatigue or a reasonable conclusion.

Chapter 3

MY MOTHER WAS still deep in conversation with the Diente and the Tuuli Thea when I returned to the Rookery, and even if I had been bleeding to death, I would have hesitated to interrupt. Fortunately my father noticed me idling there and excused himself from the others. "What's wrong?"

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