Falcondance Page 5

"Is there anything you think that I should know, before we get to Ahnmik?" Lily paused, fiddling with a razor-shell she had taken from the rocks. "The island may seem very overpowering when you first land. People will be able to tell that you are royal blood, and they may not know how to treat you. The royal court of Ahnmik is not as informal as the one you are used to, and people are likely to err on the side of caution.

"Araceli will probably give you leave to address her familiarly, but usually any member of the royal house is addressed as lady or, in Servos's case, as sir." Slanting an amused gaze in my direction, she added, "I suppose that means I have been horribly disrespectful with you these two years, calling you Nicias." The suggestion made me laugh and shake my head. I was the son of two guards, and only a guard myself, which placed me one respectful step below the lords and ladies of Wyvern's Court. I couldn't imagine being treated as some kind of royalty on Ahnmik.

"Aside from you, the royal house has four members. Cjarsa is Empress, but she rarely grants audiences, and it is Araceli who rules the island day to day. Syfka is right hand to both Cjarsa and Araceli, and often speaks for them when they are otherwise occupied. She is also the one who normally sees to any business off the island." Syfka was rarely spoken of in Wyvern's Court, though I recognized her name from my parents'

conversations. I understood that she had enabled my father to leave Ahnmik the first time and helped my mother and father both return from the island after Araceli had taken them. If Araceli proved herself as malicious as my father had painted her, then perhaps I would find an ally in Syfka. "Servos, the last of the four, is guardian to the shm'Ecl."

As my parents had, she spoke the word softly, her gaze haunted.

"You should recall that we falcons share history with the serpiente, not the avians," she continued. "If I had considered more carefully, I would have disguised myself as a serpent instead of an avian in Wyvern's Court, so I would not need to deal with men who felt like they had to protect the honor of a woman living alone and were shocked if I displayed an unseemly emotion." She shrugged, but I understood her point. Only the serpiente influence in Wyvern's Court had given her the freedom to maintain her independence while utilizing such a disguise. "You'll find that most falcons are as free with their emotions as the serpiente.

"Hmm, what else?" she asked, pondering. I saw her gaze at the edge of the island, which had already lost several inches to the rising tide. It would not be long before our dry resting place became ocean once again. "Of course, the old language is spoken on Ahnmik. You've been studying it in your history lessons at Wyvern's Court, but it might take you a little while to perfect its use."

Not too long, I hoped.

"Ahnmik is in your blood," Lily added, as if she could read my mind. "His words will feel natural to you."

She leaned on me, her body warm against mine. "It is a beautiful land, Nicias. Though I have enjoyed seeing other places these last two years, I have missed the white city. I have missed hearing her sing, and seeing the magic dance, and being among others who see my blue and know what it means instead of simply fearing it. You will see. Wyvern's Court is a lovely place... but it is not Ahnmik."

Chapter 5

WE SHIFTED INTO our human forms just above the ground and landed on a marble terrace. My knees almost went out from under me, I was so exhausted. We had flown throughout the night, and it was now well past sunup once again. I was barely aware of the audience we had attracted, until someone spoke to me. Even once I had lifted my head to listen to his words, I had no idea what he was saying. If I had been less exhausted, I probably could have translated the old language, but right then my mind refused to obey.

I blinked at him for a moment, trying to figure out what was going on. Thankfully Lily noticed my confusion. "He wishes to know if you need anything," she told me.

I knew what I needed: sleep. I was having trouble standing upright; I felt as if I was being buffeted by winds from all directions, and my vision was blurry from exhaustion. I should greet the Empress first,

I thought.

Or

-

Lily stepped forward to answer for me. Her voice rang with authority, the rolling language of Ahnmik coming easily to her despite the two years she had spent in Wyvern's Court. After a moment, she turned back to me and added, "They will find you somewhere to rest, and something to eat if you wish it. I apologize, but I must leave you in the capable hands of our welcoming committee, so I can present myself to my lady and let her know I am ready to return to my duties. Get some sleep."

"I can help you to your rooms, sir," a young man offered, making an effort to speak a language I knew.

As tired as I was, I did not fail to notice that the rooms I was given were more elegant than the ones Oliza occupied back in Wyvern's Court. If the pale stone and crystal sculpture lacked some of the warmth of that place, they made up for it with sparkling beauty.

My guide left me in the hands of two women, each wearing loose slacks and backless shirts, and each graced with wings that matched my own peregrine. Everyone I had seen so far had worn Demi wings, as Lily had said.

And everyone, in either the language I knew or the language I could barely understand, seemed to want to know what I needed. While I fought to stay awake, being waited on was fine with me. I wouldn't be able to exert any kind of effort if I tried. The meal I was served was simple but delicious: freshly baked bread still hot from the oven, a savory fish soup that warmed me to the core and hot cider to drink. As I ate, I was entertained by a choir somewhere outside the building. The words faded in and out of my awareness, but the melody was haunting.

Food and a moment to regain my bearings had helped enough that when I was asked,

""Would you like a bath readied, sir?" I had the sense to answer, "My name is Nicias." The woman nodded. "Yes, sir."

Being called sir again sent a chill down my spine. "You can call me Nicias." Her eyes widened a little, but she repeated, "Nicias. Would you like-"

"I think I'd rather sleep first, if you don't mind."

"Of course," she answered. "You have been shown your room?"

"Yes, I'm fine... Please, I'd just like to sleep now."

Within two breaths I was left alone to seek my bed, accompanied only by the distant singing.

The bed was larger than I was used to, as everything here seemed to be, but firm enough to be comfortable and piled with the softest blankets I had ever touched. Only as I was looking for a lamp or candle to snuff out did I realize that the abundant light seemed to be coming from the walls themselves. More specifically, from intricate designs etched into the stone.

If I knew how to use falcon magic, I would probably be able to turn them off, I thought, with as much humor as I could muster.

For now, I would have to be content with light. But the instant I lay down and got settled, the lights dimmed and finally shut off. The effect startled me so much that I stood up, prompting them to gradually brighten until I lay down again. The colors in my dreams seemed brighter than usual, and the sounds softer. A melody wove itself through everything, sometimes sounding like a chorus of hundreds singing in harmony all around me, and sometimes sounding like a lone child far away No matter how I tried, I couldn't quite make out the words.

Visions came and disappeared throughout the night.

A woman was kneeling on a floor of pure white stone with her head bent forward. Her hair was so white it seemed almost translucent, except at the front, where it darkened to violet and, finally, almost black; it fell forward, hiding her face and pooling on the floor around her. Silks that shimmered from deep indigo to silver wrapped her form in a complex gown.

Suddenly I realized that those silks not only clothed her, but bound her. Her wrists were crossed behind her back and tied there. Her eyes were covered and her ankles were pressed together.

Despite the blindfold, she looked up as I approached.

"Hehj-ale'heah-gen'lo'Mehay?"

the wind seemed to whisper.

I found that I understood her words easily: Do you desire to know your future?

"No," I answered.

She gave a tight-lipped smile. "No man, no woman, can see the future in truth. It is all the same illusion.

Hehj-ale'heah-gen'lo'Ecl?"

Do you desire to know your past?

"No," I answered again.

"We will be here before," she said.

"I don't understand."

"You didn't," she answered. "Now you do." She began to sing, a melody slightly different than the ones I had heard earlier. It made the air ripple around us. Then the world changed, and we were standing on the cold black ice I knew from my nightmares, with the bone white moon above. The woman's gyrfalcon wings were spread, her hair whipping around her in a wind so strong, I stumbled and tore the skin of my hands on the sharp ice. The silks that had bound her were gone, and now she was wearing a gown that looked to be made of woven gold.

Her song had changed into a scream, one that made the ice shudder around us. "This isn't your place, Nicias," she shrieked, voice like the wind. "Leave now. Dance with the light, falcon child."

I was thrown from my dream with the force of a thunderbolt and woke breathless. I flung myself out of bed and was grateful when the light snapped on. The door to the next room had been left partially open, revealing a bath that had been prepared recently enough that the water was still perfectly warm. Or perhaps magic had kept it that way for hours. I didn't know or care.

I scrubbed my skin and hair, dried with a soft towel and dressed in clothing that had been hung while I had slept.

The pants were made of a material that was softer and warmer than any I was familiar with; in lieu of a belt, they had a silver clasp on each side. The legs were comfortable and unrestricting, but laced tightly at the calves. The shirt was similar, designed to be loose around the shoulders and in the upper sleeves, but tight at the forearms and wrists. The upper back was open to allow for wings. There was no footwear, but thinking back, I didn't recall seeing any of the falcons wearing shoes the day before. I had just finished tying back my hair when the first knock came on my door.

"Yes?"

The young woman who entered was the one I had instructed to call me Nicias the evening before. She curtsied deeply, bowing her head.

I stared at her for too long, waiting for her to rise, before it occurred to me to say,

"Stand up. Can I help you?"

She stood with a smile, as if she could have knelt on my floor all day. "I hope the room merited your approval, and you found everything you needed this morning?" Even if something had bothered me, I wouldn't have dared to say no  -  not to someone who was trying so hard to please me. "Everything was fine."

"The Heir would like to see you this morning," she said, "as soon as you are ready." Before I could say that I was ready, she reached forward to change how the cuff of my shirt was laced.

I pulled back so quickly that she dropped her gaze apologetically. "Please, my lady will be very cross with me if I let you go about Ahnmik and the palace looking like a mongrel. You don't know our ways yet. Let me help?"

Despite the sincerity in her voice, I did not care for the term "mongrel." I lived in a mixed-blood land. Moreover, I knew that the word's equivalent in the old language, quemak, was considered by the serpiente to be uncivil. A fight would have broken out in Wyvern's Nest if one of the serpiente dancers had used it as casually as this woman just had.

She must have seen my displeasure; I saw her pale ever so slightly. I recalled my father's warning about the Empress's "mercy" and realized exactly why she was so desperate to please me  -  and Araceli.

I bit my tongue. I didn't want to be responsible for getting this girl  -  or myself  -  into trouble.

"I would appreciate your help," I said finally. "But please teach me so I can do it right on my own in the future."

She clapped her hands lightly, a gesture of relief and joy. "Of course!" Over the next few minutes, I learned one crucial thing: Falcons valued appearance far too much. I had always cared somewhat about how I looked, but that was mostly out of respect for Oliza. As one of her guards, I reflected upon her.

I would try to extend that respect toward the Empress and her heir, but I couldn't help complaining when my tutor took down my hair so that she could clasp most of the blond bulk back while leaving the newly blue strands loose around my face.

"A falcon's blue is a thing to be very proud of," she explained when I reached forward to tuck those irritating strands back, "not something to be hidden." I didn't have the heart to contradict her. I was beginning to look forward to meeting Araceli for only one reason: I wanted to have my powers bound, so that I could get off this island and go back to being Nicias Silvermead, Wyvern of Honor, instead of some preened and pampered prince of an empire ruled by fear.

Finally she asked me to grow the wings of my Demi form. "People will be very confused if they see you without them. They will wonder what you and the Lady could possibly have fought about this soon."

"Fought?" I inquired.

"Those who are a danger to the city or endangered by the city are not allowed to spread wing above her, or wear their Demi forms. That includes criminals, Pure Diamond, outsiders, and mongrels. But you are pure royal blood; the only reason you would be denied access to our sky is if the Empress or her heir barred you from it." I frowned at the way she separated the classes of the city so easily.

"They're restricted for different reasons, of course," she added, apologetically. "Pure Diamond is a rank for falcons who learn their magic too young. They are often...

Prev Next