Falcondance Page 6

disturbed, and need to be bound as children to keep them from harming themselves or others. Empress Cjarsa prefers that they stay on land, so that it is easier to reach them if they need her.

"As for outsiders, they are kept grounded mostly for their own protection. The city is not kind to those it does not consider its own, and it can be very disorienting from above.

"As for those with mixed blood..." She hesitated, and I wondered if she had intentionally changed her phrasing due to my response to the word mongrel.

"They often have trouble controlling their magic. It makes them dangerous to others, and to themselves. They must stay on the ground, where the city's power protects them somewhat."

And what would Araceli think of me? I wondered. Despite this girl's assurance that I was royal blood, I was most certainly an outsider. I was sworn to a mixed-blood queen and I was the son of two of Ahnmik's exiled criminals. How long would it be before I was thrown into one of those sharply defined categories?

Chapter 6

BEFORE I COULD LEAVE my room, I had to have my hair put up, my clothing corrected and my feathers carefully preened. If this was a taste of royalty, I would have no difficulty refusing any offer Araceli might make. This much attention was more than I'd ever wanted, and stepping into the open streets was a blessed relief. In the first breathtaking moment, I realized how little of Ahnmik I had seen the day before.

The road, the walls, every building about me glistened with the same kinds of designs as were in my room; only here, instead of simply remaining silver, the patterns shifted from sea foam and emerald to coral pink and bruised cranberry. The designs seemed to dance to the music that I suddenly realized was coming not from a chorus, but from the walls.

Magic.

The road beneath my bare feet was warm, and though it looked as hard as crystal, when I stepped down, it felt as soft as a carpet.

"What are the towers ahead of us?" I asked, pointing to three pure white spires in the north.

"Yenna'marl."

my guide answered. "They are called simply the white towers, and they mark the boundaries of the testing yard. The rest of the city holds spells to keep her inhabitants'

magic in check so that they can learn faster than their power can grow. But in that yard, the magic is even stronger than it is in the outside world. Careful not to stray there; the way the magic flares can be dangerous, until you have more control." I nodded, appreciating the advice.

We had reached the arched doorway of a grand building that seemed to be made entirely of crystal, perfectly clear save what must have been hundreds of layers of magic. We paused at the doorway, and I tried to follow the patterns as they wove under and over each other.

Suddenly it seemed so obvious. "It's writing, isn't it?" I asked in surprise. "What does this say?"

My guide looked startled. "It's not writing in the sense that you know."

"But... here," I argued, tracing one line. I couldn't make my eyes follow it exactly, but I still understood. "It's a prayer."

"We should go inside," she said.

"One moment, please." I struggled to grasp what I was "reading." The longer I watched the pattern, the more loudly it seemed to speak to me.

A prayer to Ahnmik.

Then the voice from my dream the night before whispered,

Nicias, child of she who is heir to the domain of ice and night, you sing here so clearly. So, careful, Nicias, remember.

We will be here before.

"Nicias!"

I was wrenched back by the shoulders, spun around so quickly that I felt dizzy and reached out a hand to support myself.

Someone grabbed my wrist, steadying me as I blinked away my confusion.

"Vesake-mana."

my guide was mumbling from where she knelt beside us.

"Ka'gen'lakin."

the woman who had caught me replied.

It took me a moment to translate the brief exchange  -

I'm sorry, Lady. Not your fault

-  and meanwhile the woman caught my arm.

"Sine'le."

she said, dismissing my guide, before addressing me. "Nicias, come inside." I did as instructed, my throat parched and my eyes unfocused. "Careful, Nicias, or we'll lose you to the shm'Ecl before the day is out. Do you know nothing of your magic? Did your father... Of course not." She sighed. She pressed a cup into my hands and said,

"Drink."

The liquid burned my tongue as I gulped it down too quickly, but it also managed to clear my head.

Suddenly I realized that my guide had addressed this woman as Lady; she was either the Empress or her heir, then. My gaze snapped up, and instantly I knew which one. Those eyes. I knew them from that moment in the woods; when my magic had first appeared, it was her gaze that had first looked upon me.

Furthermore, these were the ice blue eyes that looked back at me from the mirror every day. Softened in some places and sharpened in others, her face was nearly the female version of my own. She smiled as I looked at her, scanning my features as I did hers.

"Son of my son," she greeted me. "Nicias of Ahnmik."

"Silvermead," I corrected automatically before it occurred to me that I might offend her. She shook her head, laughing a little. "Your mother might have taken the name Silvermead, but your father was my son. You have the powerful wings of a peregrine, as he did, and as I do. If you did not have our magic, the songs would not call to you the way they do. Ever since I felt your magic wake a few days ago, I have known that you are worthy of your royal blood. On this island, that makes you Nicias of Ahnmik, nothing less."

I wanted to ask what she'd meant when she'd said she had felt my magic wake, why I had seen her so briefly, and who the other eyes had belonged to, for if hers had been real, then perhaps the others had been, too.

Instead, I hardened my heart against the joy I could see in her face and forced myself to say what I needed to. "I'm sorry, Lady, but I don't want to be Nicias of Ahnmik; I want only to be Nicias Silvermead. My parents sent me here to have my powers bound, so I can safely return to Wyvern's Court."

Araceli winced. "Nicias, why? What can you have there that is more than we can give you here? You weren't raised to rule, so I can understand your being daunted by that. You weren't raised in luxury, so I can understand your not desiring the finer things Ahnmik can provide you. But what does that world offer you? Not even love, Nicias, unless you are willing to kill any child your mate would have." Her voice softened as she implored, "Give this world a chance." I started to argue, but she shook her head. "Nicias, I've lived nearly two millennia, and have had only one child. Letting him leave was the most painful thing I have ever done."

"Painful for whom?" I asked, knowing that my voice was harsh, but the image of my father's scars was still bitter in my memory.

"You have no concept of what our magic can do if uncontrolled," she snapped. "Your mother might have survived, though few born with power can survive long without this land's magic to protect them. Your father certainly would not have. He didn't have the training, and royal blood cannot protect one forever. The only way I could bind their magics as tightly as I needed to was to etch the spells into their skin. Even what I did might not be enough; the marks clearly weren't as strong as they should have been, or you never would have been born with power."

She spoke with such pain in her voice, I couldn't help wondering if it was true. What if the wounds she'd dealt had been part of the spell to keep my parents' magic from killing them? Who was I to call her a liar, I who knew nothing about this dangerous power except that even my parents were frightened by it?

"I'm sorry, Lady," I replied, shamed by my arrogance. She sighed. "Forgiven. And please, Nicias, to you I am Araceli." I nodded. "Araceli. I'm sorry for my impertinence a moment ago. But I still don't think this place is right for me. As you said, I wasn't raised with luxury, or servants hovering over me and calling me sir; I don't think I would become used to it, or even want to." Again she laughed a little, the sound like bells. "Nicias, consider for a moment. For one, you are fascinating to most of the people of Ahnmik; very rarely is one of us born off the island, much less one of royal blood. Furthermore, they didn't know how much attention you would demand. If you were spoiled and arrogant and wanted to be pampered, but they ignored you, you would be far more cross than if you were modest and kind and wanted only to be left alone while they hovered. If you let them know that you prefer to be treated like an equal, that is how they will treat you." It was difficult to reconcile the horrible person my father and mother had warned me about with the woman I was speaking to now.

"Come walk with me, Nicias," Araceli requested. "Let me present you to Empress Cjarsa, and then I shall show you around our island. You can tell me this evening whether you want your powers bound so soon. I'll warn you now, it will hurt, and it will leave you marked, and it will be irreversible. To bind your magic, I must bind your falcon form. You'll never be able to spread wing again, Nicias. I pray you will give this world a chance before you decide to throw it all away."

We walked through the palace, but its wonder was lost on me.

Pain I could deal with, if I had to. My training in Oliza's guard had taught me how to brace myself against necessary pain. Marks I could deal with. My falcon blood had already marked me, setting me apart from the others at Wyvern's Court both physically and mentally. I could stand losing magic I had never expected, and a royal position I had never wanted, too.

But never to fly again?

Never to set off into the sky I loved, alone or with Oliza? Never to return to the distant lands that could be reached only by wing?

I wouldn't lose just the air. I would lose Wyvern's Court. With none of the strengths of a falcon, a serpent or an avian, I

would have nothing to offer as Oliza's guard. They might let me stay out of pity, but living the rest of my life in the face of that pity would destroy me. Yet both of my parents had avian forms, even though their magic had been bound...

"How did my parents get their winged forms?"

Araceli winced as she answered, "Force-change. It is one of the higher-level abilities, and forbidden on the island in all but the most desperate situations. It is a way to temporarily take control of another's magic and body. Afterward, a skilled user of our magic retains a memory of the forms of the person he changed."

"Why is it forbidden?"

Araceli looked at me as if I was mad. "To violate another's body, magic and mind so intimately is..." She shook her head. "Among my people, force-change is seen in the same light as the serpents you were raised among see rape."

"If it is so abhorrent," I said tightly, "then why was it taught to both of my parents?"

"Kel was taught to force-change because she was one of the Empress's personal guards, and although the Mercy almost never need to utilize such a skill, a guardian of the royal house must be armed with as much knowledge as she can have. Sebastian..." Her voice wavered as she said my father's falcon name. "He was royal blood, as you are. I had no need to teach him any specific pattern; he could discover it on his own, as in time you probably will be able to, too. If you decide not to go through with this self-destructive binding, I will teach you the discipline you need to keep your magic from harming you. The rest, for royal blood, comes naturally."

"I still have trouble imagining my parents doing something they were raised to feel was so evil."

Araceli backtracked gracefully, but the distaste was not completely gone from her voice as she added, "I am sure your parents did it out of desperation. I understand both of them were attempting to save another's life. Even in this city, they would not have been reprimanded for that effort."

I wanted to ask more about that story, but Araceli's tone made it clear that the discussion was over. We walked silently for a minute and soon approached a pair of doors, each pale blue with a pattern like silver frost on the glass. A falcon guard stood on each side of them, watching us warily.

"Please tell Cjarsa that I would like to introduce her to Sebastian's son," Araceli told the guards.

"I regret to inform you that the Lady is not receiving today," one answered. Both dropped their gazes as Araceli frowned.

"I'm not some mongrel seeking to petition for a favor," she said coolly. The door opened, and out stepped a falcon I recognized from history-book sketches: Syfka. She bowed respectfully to Araceli, but her voice held poorly concealed annoyance as she explained, "You won't be able to speak to her. I've already pushed my way past these guards; the Lady is occupied, with no time for conversation." Under her breath, she grumbled, "As she has been for weeks."

Araceli sighed and glanced at me apologetically. "Nicias, allow me to present Syfka, aplomado of the royal house and our ambassador on the mainland. Syfka, this is Nicias, son of Kel and Sebastian."

Syfka's gaze fell on me, and I saw a hint of regret in her eyes as she greeted me politely.

"An honor to be introduced, sir." Before I could reply, she turned back to Araceli. "My lady, might I have a few moments of your time?"

"Can it wait? I would rather not leave Nicias alone on his first day in our city."

"As you wish, but it is a matter of some importance to both of us. I had wished to take it up with Cjarsa directly..." She shrugged. "It seems the Lady has more pressing concerns than her own kingdom." Araceli looked at Syfka sharply, and the aplomado quickly assured her, "No disrespect intended. As for Nicias, he is blood of our house; the land and his people will protect him, if he needs it. Ahnmik would never betray its prince, so he is in no danger wandering alone. And perhaps he would appreciate a few minutes unchaperoned, to think."

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