Falcondance Page 8

The posture was so relaxed and peaceful, he looked as if he was about to draw a breath and stand.

"Oh dear," Lily whispered as she took in my condition and swiftly crossed the room to take my hand. "Someone should have warned you. The shm'Ecl who respond to nothing else can sometimes still sense royal blood. Not all of them are happy to be drawn from their dreams. Hold on a moment, and I can fix this."

As she spoke, she unlaced the cuff of my sleeve and pushed the material off my arm to assess the damage. The bleeding had already stopped, and now the black lines on my skin began to fade away. Even the bloodstains on my shirt disappeared.

"Who was it?" she asked.

"A girl, further down. She looked like she had cobra blood."

"Hai," Lily said softly. "Her father was a serpent who came to this land several years ago; her mother  -  " She shook her head. "The Empress's laws forbid our kind from having children with outsiders, because they always turn out this way. Their magic grows too quickly, too wildly. As a young child, Hai would become lost in illusions no one else could see. One day she stopped speaking. Finally, a few years ago, she fell while dancing. She lost control of her magic, and you can see what it did to her. Even if she regains her mind, her wings are broken; she will never fly again."

"With all the magic on this island, there is no one who can heal her?" I asked.

"Hai is..." Lily hesitated, seeming to look for words that wouldn't offend me. "It may sound harsh, but she is mixed-blood. The cobra blood in her is like a poison. It will always burn her, and it will burn anyone who tries to save her. Those few who are strong enough to mindwalk the shm'Ecl are needed elsewhere. They cannot afford to risk themselves trying to save one pt'vem dancer."

She might be "one pt'vem dancer" on Ahnmik, but all I could see were her torn wings and tortured body, and the pain she must be in. Walking out of those halls with Lily, while leaving that broken cobra behind, went against every vow I had ever taken as a Wyvern of Honor, but I had to do it. There was no way to help her.

Chapter 8

AFTER WE LEFT the hall, we did not speak of Hai, and for some reason I felt oddly reluctant to speak of Darien. "Are the roads really singing?" I asked instead. I had heard my parents and Lily say that they did, but I had always assumed that the phrase was a metaphor for beauty.

Only when Lily looked at me with surprise did I realize that I had fallen into the old language without thinking. It simply felt natural to me, like something remembered instead of learned.

My own surprise made her laugh. "Ahnmik's voice is the one spoken by your magic, by your blood and your dreams," she explained in the same language. "I told you that you would learn it swiftly, once you were here." Returning to my original question, she said,

"Outsiders don't hear anything, but to one who is falcon-born, they sing. They also shift position. And some say that if you close your eyes and walk blindly down them, they will lead you where you should go." Wryly, she added, "But I don't recommend it. They have a dry sense of humor, and a tendency to dump unsuspecting zealots in the water, or lead them into very awkward positions. Though there is a story of a young man who found his true love when the roads led him through the back door of her house and into her bedroom."

I laughed, my curiosity piqued. Perhaps that was why I had been unable to find the halls that had caught my eye from across the island until I had turned my attention elsewhere.

"So the roads are alive in a way?"

"They're imbued with thousands of years of magic from those who live here, soaked with their dreams and thoughts, and thus given a personality of their own. Sometimes if you sing, they will sing back to you. Or sometimes they will knock you off your feet, depending on whether you can carry a tune."

"Dangerous paths to walk."

Lily stopped, tilting her head as if she had heard something. "If you would like to begin your study, Araceli is available now."

"How..." I trailed off because the question seemed stupid in this realm. Lily answered anyway, though not how I had expected. Her voice brushed across my mind, as it had at Wyvern's Court.

It is a skill you will learn swiftly, she told me. "This way," she added aloud. How long had it been since Araceli and Syfka had left me alone in the city? I had not managed once to think about the consequences of having my magic bound. How was that possible?

I had thought us far from the yenna

'marl, but we turned a single corner and were only a few steps from the courtyard. There was no visible fence or wall around the testing yard, just the abrupt change from the crystalline roads to the white sand. In the center of the triangular yard was a pool of water, its surface like glass; offset around it were three white birch trees, each reaching toward the sky like a pale hand.

Araceli was kneeling there, her fingertips trailing through the still water. When she saw us, she stood and approached.

As she crossed the shimmering sand, it held no footprints, no sign that anyone had been there only moments before.

She nodded at Lily, but spoke to me. "Nicias, I apologize for leaving you alone earlier, but my meeting with Syfka could not wait. I am glad to see that you found a capable guide in my absence. Are you ready for your first lesson?" She said this as if we had not argued the last time we had spoken, as if we had agreed and the decision had been made.

"I have some questions first, if you don't mind," I said, though I didn't know what she could say that would make me feel more certain.

My choice was either to master my magic, or to have it bound. If I had it bound at this point, I would be giving up everything. Perhaps I could learn just enough to be able to do a force-change. I recalled the harsh way Araceli had spoken of that magic. I knew that even if I found someone willing to donate his wings, I would never be able to take them.

"Yes?" At Araceli's prompting, I struggled to put my thoughts into coherent order.

"I do still intend to go back to Wyvern's Court," I asserted. She nodded.

"By studying here, am I tying myself to this land? Or will I be able to leave when I choose?"

"I learned from your father that one does not attempt to imprison a prince in his own kingdom," Araceli said, her words obviously chosen with care. "Once I believe you have enough control over your magic to survive off this island, I will let you leave. You are lucky in that your royal blood will enable you to gain that kind of control. Most falcons are never able to safely leave the island."

I heard the prerequisite in her promise. "And if I chose to leave today?"

"I wouldn't need to stop you," she said. "I would need only to send Lillian to pick you up out of the ocean, hopefully before you sank too deep for us to bring you back." I shuddered at the unpleasant image. "Can you give me some idea of how long it will be, then, before you will deem it safe for me to leave?"

"Falcon children are tested for their magic for the first time when they are four years old. They grow up using magic; they begin to memorize its patterns as naturally as they learn to speak and walk." She paused to consider. "The bonds on your parents and the way in which you were raised denied you that early training. I don't doubt that once you gain any control over your power, you will learn its finer points quickly. However, I don't know how difficult that first step might be." The first hints of impatience slipping into her voice, she added, "The sooner you allow me to begin your instruction, the sooner we can find out."

She was right. I didn't really have a choice, except for whether to keep fighting the inevitable.

I had one more question, though, about a term I had heard recently. "What is mindwalking?"

Araceli looked startled. She looked at Lily, who said, "I

mentioned it to him. He had done it accidentally and run into a little bit of trouble."

"I see. Well," Araceli replied, "a mindwalker is someone who can step into another person's thoughts, to speak, or to see what they see. It is a required ability for anyone in the Mercy, so naturally your mother was quite talented in that area. It can be a dangerous pastime when used idly, so I recommend avoiding the shm'Ecl until you have more control. In the meantime, if we have trouble reaching your magic through traditional lessons, perhaps we can see whether you can recreate the fluke that led you to mindwalk the first time. Assuming you intend to study, of course." She said this in such a way that I knew she had seen my decision on my face. I nodded. I would study my magic, and then I would return to Wyvern's Court. Perhaps somewhere along the way, I could learn something that would help Hai.

"Excellent," Araceli said. "Come with me, Nicias. Lillian, would you care to assist us?"

"As you wish, my lady."

Araceli started to lead us both toward the courtyard.

When I hesitated, recalling the warnings I had been given about this yard, she turned.

"Most of the city is wrapped in spells to keep you from drowning in your power before you can control it. Unfortunately, those same spells will hamper your ability to learn, until you have the conscious control to reach past them. In this courtyard, your magic will be at its strongest, stronger even than it would be off the island." That was exactly what I was afraid of.

"You won't be able to come here without me for a while yet," Araceli assured me, "but so long as I am with you, I will be able to protect you."

I winced as the light seemed to brighten and the air warmed around me the instant I stepped onto the soft white sand.

Araceli took a deep breath, closing her eyes for a moment, and all at once I sensed the magic that she exuded. I fell instinctively into a soldier's ready, right hand grasping left wrist beneath my wings. I waited for her instruction.

"Put your hands up, mirrored to mine," she told me.

I did as she ordered, moving into what I knew only as a common starting position in serpiente dance. Arms crossed at the wrists, the backs of my hands and forearms lightly touched the same on her.

"Ahnmik's symbol is a pure white falcon, diving through a black sky. Close your eyes and see that," Araceli ordered.

I did as she said, and found that the image came easily to my mind's eye. I hoped that I would do as well here as I had elsewhere throughout my life. My parents had feared for my safety in sending me here, and if I did not return in a few days' time, they would begin to worry that I was not going to.

"I'm going to blindfold you now," Araceli said. "You are used to using your eyes. I hope to make you learn to see another way."

Her arms once again pressed lightly against mine as she tied the blindfold and returned to our original position.

"You were raised a warrior, so this exercise should be easiest for you," she said. That was the only warning she gave. I felt the flare of her magic as if it lashed out in an attack  -  and I knew I had to respond.

If she had thrown something at me, my arms would have lifted to catch it. Now my magic did the same, and I had no conscious thought as to how.

I knew we never moved physically, but we might as well have fought, danced, run, flown. The magic rippled between our still bodies.

The activity stretched until I had no sense of the world Araceli had blinded me to. There was only the power, shifting and swirling in patterns complex and simple at the same time, bright and dark, silent yet singing.

Sweat was beading on my brow, and my breath and heartbeat were racing when she finally broke contact. My body swayed with exhaustion and I stumbled down to one knee. Lily was there immediately, her touch soft and familiar as she offered me a cup full of cold, clear water. I reached up to remove the blindfold, thinking the lesson was over.

Not yet, Nicias,

Araceli said.

Stand up.

I hesitated, feeling every ache in my body all at once.

Stand up, she ordered me again.

Standing right then was perhaps the most difficult thing I had ever done, but I forced myself to obey her command. The sun, which had previously warmed the front of my body, was now an unwelcome weight on my back.

Araceli's magic struck me harder, and it was Lily's hand on my arm that held me up, even as I felt my magic sluggishly respond.

Release him, Lillian,

Araceli said, sternly.

Nicias, try to push back at me.

Tentatively, I reached out, trying to do consciously what I had done instinctively before. I managed... something, I thought.

Again.

I tried again, and when I fumbled, I felt Araceli's power slap across mine.

"Enough," she finally declared, pulling back. I felt a tug as she untied the blindfold; then I was blinking against the light of Ahnmik. The day had disappeared while we had been working, but the white towers glowed softly, as if reflecting moonlight that the clouds above concealed.

It felt as if the ground shifted beneath me; I braced myself against the dizzy spell, closing my eyes and breathing deeply. Araceli nodded to Lily, who came back to my side, steadying me. I flinched when she first touched my arm. My skin was badly sunburned, but it healed instantly at her touch.

Again she offered water, and I drank greedily.

"Ahnmik's magic is not gentle and its study is not easy. We will need to work on your endurance before you can master it," Araceli said. For the moment, all I desired was sleep. "I will see you tomorrow for your next lesson. For now, rest. Lillian, help him get home safely."

Chapter 9

LILY AND I walked toward my rooms mostly in silence. Part of me felt exhilarated by the lesson, and the memories of the shifting power. Another part felt acute frustration. Never in my life, in classes or training or any other form of study, had I worked so hard and accomplished so little. I didn't know what I had learned, if anything. Lily put a hand on my arm, drawing me back from my bleak thoughts as we reached the doorway to my rooms.

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