Falcondance Page 7

Seeing my dismissal very near, I interjected, "If I might ask one favor?"

"Yes?" Araceli replied.

"Before I make my decision on whether to stay or go, I would like to speak to my parents." They had warned me not to trust this woman. I didn't know whether she was speaking the truth about my magic and my falcon form.

"Nicias, Nicias." Araceli sighed. "When you leave this island, it must be with your magic either bound or mastered. Right now, the island is protecting you from yourself, and yet you were still hypnotized by your power at the doorway to the palace. If you try to leave now, you'll fall and drown while you're busy listening to Ecl

's whispers and watching the paintings in the waves."

I recalled the way Lily had needed to grab my wings so I wouldn't fall on my way to the island. I didn't think I could risk a return trip. "Then might one of them come here?"

"Your parents are both in exile," Araceli told me bluntly.

"But you are the heir to the Empress. You must have the authority to lift that sentence long enough for them to speak to me. If you have been honest so far, then there is no risk to you in my speaking to them."

Syfka took a step back as I made that statement, even before Araceli tensed, looking as offended as if I had struck her.

"I do not have that authority. That is my lady Cjarsa's decision to make, as she is the one who put down the sentence upon each of them. Even if it was my decision," she continued, "I would not allow them back. When they fled this island, they endangered themselves, and they endangered those they'd sworn their loyalty to on the mainland.

"Your mother fled her responsibility to the Empress Cjarsa the first time she was called upon to protect her liege. Tell me, Nicias, what is the sentence among Oliza's Wyverns for a guard who abandons his post and allows his monarch to face an assassin alone?" She did not wait for me to unravel my tongue and attempt to answer. Among the serpiente and the avians, what she was describing would be high treason, and punishable by death.

"In the years since they left," she said more softly, "it seems that both of your parents have matured. Their positions among the avians are respected, and their loyalty is unquestioned. Perhaps they have learned their lesson. But that does not excuse their first crimes. They abandoned this land when it needed them. If you stay as prince, you might have the power to pardon them someday, but until then I will not allow either one to set foot in my city."

"And what unforgivable crime did your son commit?" I asked tentatively. Araceli's tone when she spoke of my father was like ice.

"Sebastian of Ahnmik is dead. There is a crow who holds his memories, a crow who holds his blood but not his features  -  the features I see so clearly in you. But my son, my only son, is dead to this world, dead to my people, and dead to me."

"What  -  "

"Silence," she snapped, and now the pain in her eyes was apparent. "On this topic, I demand it. We do not speak of that which is too late to change."

"My lady, I hate to interrupt," Syfka said softly, stepping forward awkwardly, "but I must speak with you, now."

Araceli nodded. "Walk our city if you like, Nicias," she said, distantly. "I have business I must attend to. I will summon you this evening to hear your decision. Dismissed." I took a step away from the pair, somewhat dazed by the argument. When I had just turned the first corner, I heard Araceli say to Syfka, "I suppose it is too much to ask for his trust, when his parents have surely been speaking ill of me throughout his life. Even though I speak honestly to him and say things he would accept as reasonable if they came from a serpent or an avian, he assumes they are lies."

"Doubtless his parents think many of their words are deserved," Syfka answered. I hesitated, curious what else they would say when they thought I was not listening.

"Perhaps some of them are," Araceli admitted. "But our war with the serpiente was over thousands of years ago, and yet they still teach their children a hatred of us." After a long silence, during which I almost continued on my way, she added, "I cannot stand to lose another child to ancient conflicts, Syfka. But how can I compete with a hatred that has endured thousands of years?"

The raw pain in Araceli's voice cut me more deeply than anything she had said so far. As a child of Wyvern's Court, I was far too familiar with her sentiment. I had seen serpents wary of avians, and avians wary of serpents, despite the efforts our leaders had made to bring the two groups together. I had thought myself beyond that hatred because I had been born a falcon. Instead, I had learned to hate my own blood. I continued on my way out, tracing the halls I had come through with Araceli, and resolved to try to look upon what I found here with a more open mind. I would not dismiss everything my parents had told me, but I would try not to be as biased as an avian matron watching the serpents' dance.

Chapter 7

ONCE BACK OUTSIDE, I hesitated at the foot of the palace. I might have dreamed of the chance to explore this city, but to stand at its edge with no destination and no guide was overwhelming.

In the distance, I caught a glimpse of an elegant spire shimmering like a violet mirage on the horizon.

Thinking that landmark as good a destination as any, I started forward, only to find that the roads of Ahnmik twisted in unpredictable ways. What had seemed to be a straight path only moments before turned out to curve so that after several minutes I found myself on the cliffs where the ocean met the island.

Turning back, I could see the city: the three yenna'marl, bone white and sharp against the sky, and a trio of arches that seemed to be in the center of the city. Again, I could see only the edge of the strange violet spire.

I tried following the beach and found myself by a bridge that seemed to connect Ahnmik to another, smaller island, one peppered with lush greenery. Exploring that area would have to wait. I had a feeling I was lost enough as it was. I glanced behind me, wanting to confirm that I could still see the yenna'marl and get my bearings from them.

The odd tower that had caught my attention was practically brushing against the road on which I now stood. How could that be?

It seemed almost as if the walls were made of liquid, and the violet that had seemed so bold at a distance was muted up close. The arched doors were smoke black glass, slick and ominous in the white city. They had no handles, though I could see the seam between the two. Two symbols marked that doorway: shm'Ecl

If you can't, it will destroy you, my father had warned me.

It will numb your body and mind, until it drives you into what is called shm'Ecl. There are rooms on Ahnmik filled with those who have succumbed to it, those who could not learn to control their power. They are neither alive nor dead, neither awake nor asleep.

I pushed against the doors almost in a daze, bracing myself for whatever lay beyond and yet needing to see the fate my parents feared so much.

Inside, the building was completely silent. All day I had been listening to the songs Ahnmik sang, music that seemed to seep from the walls and roads, but now I felt as if I had been struck deaf. The air was heavy, so thick with power that walking was like trying to move underwater.

The hall in which I stood was round, with a silver domed ceiling, and walls that were pale at the top but darkened to nearly black where they touched the floor. A spiral ramp circled along the edges of the room, ascending to where it hid the rest of the ceiling from my view and descending beneath the level of the floor. All along the walls were doorways, some open and some closed.

"Maenka'Mehay-hena'hehj? Meanka'las?"

a deep voice asked. What lies beyond

Mehay?

Beyond eternity? The old language came more easily to me now, and I understood what he said as he continued. "Nothingness,

Ec l. That which never was and never can be. Commonly, it is translated as destruction, but more accurately it is lack of existence."

I turned to find a man whose body and face made him appear a few years younger than I, but whose eyes, liquid blue like the ocean, gave him away as being ancient.

"The minds of the shm'Ec l are lost somewhere that we in this world can never hope to reach. Their magic is unpredictable. In some moments, they lash out at hallucinations, nightmares, pain that drives them ever further from us. But most times, they are simply still, their minds as numb and empty as the womb of the void."

"Servos?" I asked when he paused and stared into the distance. He nodded, not seeming to focus entirely on me. "And you are Nicias." Nicias?

A voice whispered through my mind, making me jump. It was one that I had heard several days before, when I had first fallen in the woods, and then again in my dreams. Servos sighed.

I heard the song from my dream, heard it and for the first time understood the words. Of eternity, of silence, of coldness, of stillness. Of E

cl. He who dwells with

Ecl knows of void. He who dwells with

Ecl knows of death. But he who dances with

Ecl, he is lost, for he who dances with

Ecl brings to life the world of death. So dance.

The song sent a shudder down my spine.

"You hear it?" Servos asked.

I nodded, searching the room for the singer.

"You can't see her from here; her room is near the top of this hall," Servos explained.

"Her name was Darien. She was a dancer, and part of the highest choir. Most people cannot hear her voice, even when they stand beside her."

Of eternity, of madness, of heat, of movement.

Of Mehay.

He who dwells with

Mehay knows too much. He who dwells with

Mehay knows of creation. But he who dances with

Mehay, he is lost, for he who dances with

Mehay cannot leave the dance and will face the fire. So dance.

"If you'll excuse me," Servos said abruptly, "I need to see to one of my charges." He did not wait for a response from me, but turned to descend the ramp underground. Darien's song stopped and was replaced by a whispered chant:

Nicias Silvermead, Wyvern of Honor, Nicias of Ahnmik, heir to the heir of she who shines in darkness, Nicias fool child, Nicias wise one.

The words fluttered in my ears, almost teasing, sighing along a few notes from on high. Irresistibly drawn, I started up the ramp. I thought that the shm'Ecl were not aware of their surroundings, yet this woman who was supposedly one of them called me by my name and by many titles, some of which I used for myself and some of which I wanted no claim to.

My gaze was drawn to one of the open doorways I passed. Inside, a figure was lying on the floor, her ink-dark falcon wings crumpled behind her, broken and scored by tarlike bands of black and crimson. Unlike the graceful, delicate designs that painted the white city, these marks were vicious and ugly, but they shone with the iridescent sheen I had come to associate with falcon magic.

I did not know her by name, but I recognized the familiar line of her jaw, texture of her ebony hair and warmth of her fair skin. I was sworn to the royals of Wyvern's Court, which included the Cobriana, and I could not fail to note that this young woman had cobra blood.

I knelt and put a hand on her arm, needing to try even though I had little hope of stirring her.

Without warning, I found myself back in my nightmares. The black ice rippled and warped, jutting skyward to form razor blade walls, uneven and mazelike. Beneath it, I saw shadows moving, talons and fangs scraping the ice as they reached for me, and I shuddered.

I leapt aside as a serpent reared its head, blocking my path, the tips of its milky fangs glistening with drops of venom. As I stumbled, my arm brushed against one of the jagged walls of ice, and I gasped in pain as my skin was sliced open. It is only illusion,

I told myself, hoping that was true.

I stepped toward the serpent. There were glints of red in its eyes, like the vermilion magic on the girls' black feathers.

It spread its hood, but there was no crest on its back as I was used to from my dealings with other cobras. Only this slick black on black.

I see you've met my daughter, Hai.

Darien's voice whispered through the land.

Her father was...

The cobra slid soundlessly into the ice, and the jagged landscape smoothed as Darien trailed off, leaving a lingering sense of sorrow.

Your mother could walk the minds of those no one else could touch, Darien told me.

It seems you have inherited her skill. I don't recommend it, not here in the Halls of shm'Ecl.

The minds of Ecl

's lovers are unfriendly places.

Come to me. We need to speak.

She pushed me from the illusion.

The first thing I realized when I returned to reality was that my arm truly was cut. The cloth of my shirt was not torn, but the skin beneath was; my own blood had darkened the fabric. A black coil of magic, like that which wrapped Hai's wings, had twined around my hand, and I could feel where it snaked up my arm and across my shoulder. Cold seeped from the tarlike bands.

I stood unsteadily, holding my hand against my chest and wondering whether Servos would be able to explain all this to me. Or maybe Darien herself. A few wobbly steps up the ramp took me to another doorway, and beyond this one, I heard a voice I knew.

"My lady suggested that I visit you this morning, to make sure I am ready to return to her side. I had a dream last night, you see," Lily was saying to a still form before her,

"m which you woke. You came back to me..." She sighed. "This morning when I first opened my eyes, I thought for a moment that it was true. We  -  " She tensed and without turning said, "Nicias, meet my brother, Mer." Lily pushed herself to her feet, so I could see her brother clearly.

Mer's features would have given away their relationship even if Lily had not spoken of it. He knelt on the floor, his wings tucked behind him, his head bowed and his hands on his knees.

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