Falcondance Page 4

'Ahnmik, he will fall within the week."

Still my parents hesitated, as if they were hearing different words than I was, less frightening ones.

"You would allow him to stay here, knowing..." Lily let out an angry cry. "How selfish can you be? You know that he will not survive here. He needs  -  enough!" She ran her hands through her hair, drawing my attention to the tangles in the blond strands. I realized then that she must have come here from her own bed; her hair was tousled and she was wearing a very simple linen gown. "Nicias, do you wish to come with me? I will leave immediately. Every hour you are here puts you further at risk."

"I am not going to let my son leave with a perfect stranger," my mother interrupted. Lily turned to say, "This is not your decision to make." She took a deep breath. When she spoke again, her voice reminded me of the black ice from my dream. "I lost my mother to

E

cl before I was old enough to know her, and my twin brother several years ago. I have seen too many loved ones fall. I will not lose someone whom I have the power to save." More gently, she added, "Nicias will be safe on the island. He is of our blood, and has our magic; that means he will be allowed to study. I do not know what crimes led to your exile, but they don't matter. The Empress's laws do not allow any falcon to be held to the crimes of his parents." She sighed. "Have faith in your son. Recall that you are the ones who taught him about duty."

Turning from my mother, she touched my hand and said, "If you want to come with me, get dressed. I will go to my home and do the same, and then meet you here." I did not need to tell her or my parents that I would be leaving for Ahnmik that morning. The decision was already made, and we all knew it.

"Wait," I said as one complication occurred to me. "I need to speak to Oliza."

"Of course," Lily said. "You are sworn to her. I will meet you outside the nest, then." She kissed me on the cheek before pushing past my parents on her way out. My mother sighed, her head bowed in defeat. She touched my cheek, almost whispering, "She's right, Nicias. It's fools' hopes that make us want to keep you here."

"May I speak to Nicias alone for a moment?" my father asked. My mother nodded and drifted back into the hallway without another word.

"Are you really worried that I won't return to Wyvern's Court?" I asked. "This is my home. I consider myself a subject of the Tuuli Thea and the Diente and their heir, not of some empress I have never met. And though Araceli may be family by blood, the falcons have never claimed me as kin. All the family I care about is here." My father drew a deep breath.

"Ahnmik is, despite all its other traits, a beautiful land," he finally said. "It is a realm where you would be revered in stead of shunned, where your falcon features would be seen as a thing of beauty instead of proof that you are different. That alone can be a powerful lure."

I shook my head. "Vanity isn't enough to make me betray Oliza."

"More than that, on Ahnmik you would be royalty. You would be able to use magic that few people here can even begin to comprehend." I had no desire to rule over anyone. And although I was curious about magic, I wasn't curious enough to give up everything

-  and everyone  -  for it. "And then, of course, there is  -  what is her name?" he asked me softly.

"Lily," I answered. "She has been my friend for two years. I know I should have told you, but..."

My father shook his head. "I speak to you now because I know Araceli will offer you everything and more to keep you by her side, and I hope you will have weighed all the possible temptations against your love for and duty toward this land." I nodded, knowing what he was implying. "Before you go, there is something I need to show you, for you to remember when Araceli tells you of the wonders of the white city." He unlaced the throat of his shirt and pulled the cloth over his head. I knew many men in the local guard who practiced bare-chested in the summer heat, and even more who wore the low-backed shirts that allowed them to grow the wings of a Demi form at any time, but I had never seen my father dressed either way. Now I realized why.

Complex designs had been etched into his skin; scars covered his back and crept onto his shoulders and upper arms. Some were fine and neat, as if from a sharp blade, and some were broader and appeared burned in  -  as if he had been branded. I stepped forward, horrified not only by the cruelty of whoever had left these marks, but by the artistry of the marks as well. Shimmering lines of what had to be magic twined with the scars, continuing and layering the designs in iridescent silver, blue and violet. Someone had created a work of art on my father's skin, with blades and power.

"It is a crime to imply that the royal family can be cruel, so on the island punishment is referred to as the Empress's or Heir's mercy. It equates to torture. Many things on Ahnmik are equally honey coated  -  especially when it comes to the royal family. Keep that in mind. Keep in mind that if you choose to stay, you will be tying yourself to leaders who condone such things."

"What did you do?" I asked in shock. I had never dared to question either of my parents about why they had been exiled from the land of their birth. But I had never seen the punishment they had received, either.

"My crime was wanting to live off the island, among those the falcons consider savages

-  the avians and serpiente you have been raised with. Your mother wears similar marks, though hers are worse. In addition to leaving, she argued with my mother to let me go. After Araceli decided we were no longer suited to life on Ahnmik, after she had decided to let us go, and bound our powers, it was pure spite that led her to mark us both."

Suddenly the idea of visiting the white city filled me with dread. My father grasped my shoulders in a brief and uncharacteristic embrace. "You've falcon blood, but your heart is avian, Nicias. You'll come back to us." The dancers in the front of the nest tried to keep me from entering at first. They relented only when I pressed upon them that it was an emergency, and even then they did so reluctantly.

No, a falcon was not welcome in this place.

I found Oliza still sleeping, resting innocently in a tangle with several other dancers. I couldn't reach her past the others, so I called her name.

"Oliza?"

"Nicias?" She sat up so quickly that one of the serpents who had been lying against her whispered a sleepy complaint before another shifted to fill in the gap Oliza had left behind. "What's wrong?"

I winced, knowing that anything I said in the dancer's nest would become common knowledge within a day. The dancers were revered in serpiente society as historians and storytellers  -  which made them tend to be insatiable gossips.

When I hesitated to explain around company, Oliza stood and followed me to the edge of the nest. Out of earshot of the rest, I said simply, "Apparently I inherited my parents'

magic. It seems to come with some disadvantages."

Oliza's eyes widened. "I hope it doesn't pose a danger." My gut tightened. "My parents think it does. I don't understand it all, really. But I'm traveling to Ahnmik, as soon as possible." Belatedly, I added, "With your leave?"

"Permission granted, of course, especially if your safety is at stake," she answered swiftly. "We will see you again, I hope?"

"I'm one of your Wyverns," I answered without hesitation. "And I would far rather live in a realm you rule than that of the falcon Empress."

"Take care of yourself, Nicias," Oliza said, with more warmth in her voice than she ever allowed herself to show around her many suitors. She hugged me tightly and kissed my cheek. I heard one of the serpents who had been watching us say something that sounded like "Lucky falcon."

Lucky. At the moment, lucky was not a word I would apply to myself.

Chapter 4

"THE FLIGHT is long," Lily warned me, barely a single step outside the nest, "and there aren't many places to rest. We'll be able to stop and relax our wings, and perhaps eat something, only once during the journey  -  provided we make good enough time to get to the island at low tide, while it's above water." Her eyes widened. "Nicias..." She reached forward and tugged my hair loose of the tie I used to keep it back. "What are  -  "

She laughed. "I was too preoccupied in your room to notice earlier." She pulled forward some of the front strands, allowing me to see for the first time that what had previously been silver-white was now pale blue, just a shade lighter than my eyes. Normally the change would have irritated me, since it set me even further apart from the serpents and avians who already looked at me as an oddity. However, Lily's delight was infectious.

"A falcon's magic marks his body," she explained. "Your mother's violet eyes are one example. The blue in your hair is another. It will probably darken a little more when you begin to study, though the royals don't seem to show their power as overtly as some of the others. But I'm delaying us; we should be gone. Are you ready?"

"I hope so," I answered.

She didn't wait for more, shifting immediately into a sleek peregrine falcon a little smaller than me.

The first leg of the flight was less terrible than I had imagined, despite Lily's being able to hold an even faster pace than Oliza had ever managed. At the beginning, I delighted in spreading my wings, delighted in the ocean breeze and the smell of brine. I settled into a peaceful reflection, caught between sun and sea.

Then Lily bumped against me, her talons catching my wings to steady and lift me. With a start, I realized that I had dipped dangerously close to the waves. I shook my wings vigorously, both to gain altitude and to dry my feathers.

Though we had left shortly after dawn, we did not reach the island Lily had spoken of until nearly dusk. The little bit of volcanic rock, worn smooth and covered with shelled creatures and seaweed, was an inhospitable place to rest, but I was still grateful for the chance to return to human form for a while.

I arched my back, stretching my spine and then rolling my shoulders, unable to focus on fears or hopes while my heartbeat was still pounding from the exertion of the day. As she landed, Lily shed the last of her illusions, then for the first time stood before me in her natural form. She ducked her head self-consciously as I stared, shocked by the transformation.

Her face and form were very similar to before, but her skin had paled to cream. Her hair was a shade darker than mine, but still the color of honey in milk; in the front, it became cobalt and indigo, like gemstones spun into silk. Her eyes, previously a very ordinary blue-gray, now picked up the colors of the ocean and of her hair, so that they too shone like fair jewels.

And she was wearing her wings, enormous peregrine wings that tumbled down from her shoulders and nearly brushed the ground at her feet.

"I know it is rare in Wyvern's Court for one to wear her wings openly," she said shyly,

"but on Ahnmik, very few do not. This is what I consider my true form." She knelt and brushed a hand over the kelp that covered the island, clearing a bare, smooth space large enough for both of us to sit in.

"I hope I didn't overstep my bounds with your parents earlier," she said. "This must be very hard for them. They both left Ahnmik when they were young, and having their magic bound would have been terribly painful. It is not surprising that they would not think well of the royal house."

"How could they?" I almost asked, thinking of my father's scars. But I kept my questions to myself when I saw the fear in her eyes. "I saw them hesitate, and all I could think was that they couldn't possibly know... They hadn't felt your heartbeat slow and your skin cool as your magic tried to drag you down. I shouldn't have taken my fear out on them." I reached out, and she took my hand. "You're safe now. And you probably have questions."

Questions. Where could I begin? "Until last night, my parents had always refused to speak of Ahnmik  -  or magic."

My parents had tried to forget their pasts, and who they used to be. My father had changed his name entirely, from

Sebastian to Andreios, which he had been known by for all the years he had hidden among the avians as a crow. Both of my parents had chosen to use the surname Silvermead after their exile, in honor of the avian family that had taken my mother in when she had first fled the island, and of the dancer Valene, who had petitioned the Empress for their pardon.

"What would you like to know?" Lily asked, startling me from my thoughts. I had to stop drifting off. Of course, that was exactly what this trip was about, wasn't it?

"That moment in the woods  -  the one that made you so sure I had this magic  -  can you explain it to me?"

How could I possess something I barely understood?

"When a falcon's magic first appears, it often does unpredictable things," she said. I could see her struggling to find the right words for something that was common knowledge among her people. "The three visions might have been images from your future, necessary sights, catalysts with the power to irrevocably alter your path." Then she added with a wry smile, "Or they might have been nothing more than ghosts, people you might see, or even ones who sensed the sudden shift in magic and happened to look back at you. Blue and even silver eyes are so common on Ahnmik that I couldn't be gin to guess to whom they might belong. And cobra eyes are certainly not unlikely in your future." She dismissed it all with a shake of her head. "I won't go so far as to say that all visions are without meaning, but those that come unsummoned to an undisciplined mind are most often nonsense."

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