Falcondance Page 9

"Careful," she said. "You've burned a great deal of power today  -  more than you're used to losing so fast. Sometimes it can lead to melancholy. Are you hungry?" I shook my head. "Strangely, no."

"Not strangely," she corrected. "It's normal, especially the first few days. You will learn quickly that your magic can sustain you. But watch out; as soon as your body remembers that it requires food, you'll wake up starving." She pushed open the door, and I followed her in, watching the lights emerge from the patterns in the walls as we entered.

"Why don't you take down your wings and relax?" she suggested. Her own wings slid against her body and faded away as she spoke, hidden until she was ready to walk about the city again. She stretched, arching her back and twining her fingers together behind her.

I did the same, but flinched as I discovered a sea of pulled muscles. They would stiffen that night and ache the next day.

"I've never worn my Demi form for this long in my life," I said, carefully rolling my shoulders to try to work out some of the kinks.

Lily winced in sympathy and moved behind me.

"If you'll he down, I'll rub your back for you."

"That would be wonderful," I said before I'd had a chance to think the answer through. I had been raised close enough to the serpiente that casual touch did not shock me, but I was still very avian at heart, and I had a moment of unease as I lay on the bed, head resting on my hands, with an attractive woman beside me. Even more so the first time her palms smoothed down my back.

I had never thought of Lily that way before, because neither of us had ever been available. I had always known that she would have to return to Ahnmik. And I had always been one of Oliza's Wyverns.

"You are either angry, frightened, or nervous," Lily said. "I don't think I frighten you, and I certainly hope I don't anger you."

She left unspoken the last possibility. As she sat on the bed beside me, I started to push myself up. We still were not available.

Lily's gentle hands on my shoulders directed me back down. "Relax, Nicias." Her voice betrayed the laughter she was trying to subdue. "Relax." I took a deep breath and concentrated on doing as she said. Eyes closed, I let myself think of nothing more than the feeling of sore, tense muscles being worked out. Beyond where her hands touched my skin, I felt a faint tickling sensation, a warm buzz that made me so calm I thought I might sink through the mattress. Magic. I recognized it, but the desire to question her drifted away.

"Much better." She sighed. Her hair swept across my skin as she leaned over my back, and I would have tensed again if I could have summoned the energy to do so. She brushed my hair to the side, and her fingers slid through the indigo feathers that grew at my nape. "Relaxed now?"

Suddenly... not exactly.

And even less so when her hps touched my shoulder, silently offering and asking at the same time.

I sat up, and this time Lily did not stop me. She just flopped onto the bed, letting out a heavy breath.

"Nicias  -  "

"You know I have to go back to Oliza," I said. I pushed myself to my feet, wanting very much to hold Lily, but fighting not to. "I can't stay on Ahnmik. And I know you need to stay. So we can't  -  "

"Nicias, I'm no avian sweetheart," she said softly. "I'm not offering marriage. I'm offering companionship, a heartbeat beside yours." She sighed, her blouse stretching taut across her chest, which did not help me keep control. "You've lived so close to the serpiente, how can it still be alien to you to sleep with another life beside you?" I took a step back, needing to put more distance between us.

The problem was that it wasn't completely alien to me. As a child, I had shared a serpiente type nest with Oliza; her cousin, Salem; and a few others. I had stopped doing so before I had joined the Wyverns, but I often missed the warmth and company as I slept.

"I know I will never be first to you," she said, as if reading my mind. "You have sworn your loyalty to Oliza much as I have sworn my loyalty to the white Lady, and nothing

-  nothing

-  will ever precede her in your heart. Duty will forever come first to you; I admire that because it is the same for me. But loyalty does not have to displace every other kind of love. For right now, neither of us is called upon. For tonight, we can just... be." There was no arguing with that.

Lily was right. Oliza had my vow. I would give my life for my queen. Until that day, however, that life should be mine to do with as I chose.

Before I could speak or make a move, Lily let out a frustrated prayer of

"Eel spare the girl who waits for you to make up your mind." Then she kissed me, standing on her toes and leaning against my body. Tentatively, I let myself put an arm around her back, holding her close, and I felt her lips smile against mine before she drew back just enough to speak.

"If you want me to go, I'll go," she said, softly, blue eyes vulnerable. "But I would rather stay. And I think you would rather I stayed."

She stayed. I stayed. The night was marvelous, and I had one vivid thought before I fell asleep:

I

could get used to this.

And then I was somewhere else entirely, back upon the nightmare landscape that was now familiar to me: Hai's world. Black sand dunes appeared, frozen forever in place. Far away I could see the high turrets of a castle, but when I took a step toward them, I heard an ominous hiss. The black cobra reared its head.

I took a step back, willing myself elsewhere, and soon found that I stood before another figure.

Darien was pacing furiously, dressed in suede slacks, vest and boots. Her white-gold hair flowed behind her, loose and wild, not quite in time with her movements.

"Before you ask," she said sharply, "yes, you are asleep. And yes, I am really speaking to you. It is difficult to do so here. You should come back to the hall where they keep me."

She paused and looked directly at me with eyes that seemed to shift color: from green, to blue, to violet, and finally to pale gray.

"I can't right now," I said, my own voice alien to me. "I'm not quite sure why I should, either."

"Fool child," she spat. "Trusting fool child. A woman bats her eyes at you, and you think she's harmless." She shoved my shoulders, sending me stumbling on the ice, which was suddenly slicker than before. "Another woman shares stories of how it hurt

-  oh, how sad she was  -  when she tortured her son for days and exiled him from his homeland. And you trust them both with your body, your mind, and your magic."

"Do I have any more reason to trust you? You're supposed to be mad." Her face fell. As she sighed, a cold wind whipped across the ice, making all the hairs on my arms rise as I shivered.

"Yes, mad," she whispered. "Mad for challenging the white Lady, for daring to defy her. For daring to despise the woman your father once called mother, and your lover calls Queen. You didn't realize that, did you? When Lillian speaks of her Empress, she means Araceli.

She is guilty of treason in her heart if not in action. If I was still sworn to my lady Empress, I would have brought dear Lily before her long ago."

"You're not endearing yourself to me," I said coldly. She looked at me as if I had not even spoken. "But you, Nicias, you are not the Empress or her heir. You may even have some sort of a heart, despite the poison from your royal blood."

That was a rousing endorsement. "Why do you hate Araceli so?"

"Why does the cat hate a mouse?" she returned. "Why, more like, does the mouse hate a cat?" She whipped her head to the side, as if hearing something else. "Not now."

"Darien?"

"I thought no one remembered my name anymore, save Servos," she said, softly. "All those who mattered have forgotten. It is nice to hear you speak it." Darien's eyes burned violet as she looked at me.

"A word of advice, prince, for your travels in our fair city. Everyone on this island is a pawn. You, me. Syfka. Cjarsa. Everyone. It's accepted; it's expected." She sighed and whispered, "I borrowed a feather of your soul, son of the son of she who shines in the darkness, she who glints on ice. I borrowed it and kept it safe."

"What are you talking about?" I demanded.

"I borrowed it and made it dance for me, and it said..." She let out a falcon's shriek that made the ice shatter in all directions. I struggled to stay out of the water underneath, but felt myself falling.

"It said, son of the son of the Lady, that you would destroy an empire." I fell into the water and felt it close over my head before I struggled back to the surface to find Darien kneeling on a patch of unbroken ice, offering her hand.

"I could never forgive myself if I let Kel's child drown here," she whispered. I took her hand, and she pulled me up, whispering,

Come to me, Nicias. We need to speak.

Then I was awake, shuddering from the dream that wasn't a dream. I needed to go to her. I needed to know what she meant.

Lily snuggled against me, her eyes heavy-lidded with sleep, looking much bluer at this hour. "Something wrong?"

"No, no," I answered, perhaps too hastily. "Go back to sleep. I need to talk to someone." She threw an arm around my waist, snuggling against my side as I tried to stand up. "It's the middle of the night. You don't need to talk to anyone right now."

"I should-"

"Nicias, go back to sleep," she said, laughing and reaching toward me to run a hand up my chest. "Or, if you don't want to sleep, I'm sure we can find a way to pass the time. But if you wander around Ahnmik alone at this hour, you're asking the roads  -  if not Ec l herself  -  for trouble. Whatever it is, it can wait."

I sighed, relaxing back into her arms. I didn't even know anymore why I had wanted to see Darien. She hated Araceli and Lily, and her own daughter had shown me how dangerous shm'Ecl were, despite their apparent stillness. I had no sane reason to go to Darien now, and plenty of reasons to stay with Lily.

Chapter 10

THE NEXT MORNING dawned cool and misty  -  or so I was told. By the time Lily and I woke and greeted the day, most of the fog had burned off and the air was as pleasant as in springtime. I awoke to find slender silver lines along my chest and stomach. When I asked about them, Lily blushed.

She brushed a hand across the marks, making my breath catch as the magic oscillated.

"Harmless," she said. "Think of them as... love marks. Though I can remove them if they worry you."

With her eyes that beautiful indigo, her hair still rumpled from sleep and her hands on my chest, there wasn't much that could worry me.

We bathed and dressed, then emerged into Ahnmik with the languor that always follows deep sleep. Lily unfurled her wings as soon as we stepped into the outside world, reminding me to do the same.

It also reminded me of a question. "I was told that outsiders and mongrels"  -  I still hesitated to say that word que mak, though I had accepted that the falcons used it differently  -  "are not allowed to wear their wings in the city, but when I saw Hai among the shm'Ecl, she was wearing hers."

Lily's expression was grim as she said, "The Empress favored the girl, and made an exception to the law. She regretted it when Hai became a poignant example of why mongrels are forbidden in the sky. The city is not kind to those it does not consider its own."

More say that they are 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. Lily had said that to me earlier, when I had asked whether the roads were alive. Now the memory prompted a dark thought.

"You said the city's mind comes from those who have lived here," I said. "Wouldn't that mean its actions toward outsiders are inspired by its inhabitants' feelings toward them?" Lily laughed, shaking her head. "Oh, Nicias." Her amused tone seemed to say "You are being terribly naive, and it's terribly cute." I found that when she looked at me with eyes that were nearly violet in the morning light, I lost my breath as well as my desire to argue.

For now, I was content to listen to Ahnmik's music and watch the people who passed, all of them wearing the wings of gyrfalcons, peregrines, aplomados and merlins. One of the buildings we passed was a kitchen, and Lily picked out two small freshly baked bread loaves with honey for us to nibble on as we walked. I wasn't particularly hungry, but made myself eat anyway. Maybe food would fortify me, in case that day's lesson with Araceli was as rigorous as the one the day before.

It didn't  -  at least, not enough for me to notice a difference. Around noon Araceli called for a break, and we sipped mint tea as we discussed things of great and little relevance.

The conversation turned to my life in Wyvern's Court. "The two civilizations aren't exactly combined," I explained. "But they've come a long way since the wars. Right now, the northern slopes are primarily avian, and the southern slopes are primarily serpiente. The two groups do gather in the market, though, and many of the younger ones share classes. The older generation has bent as far as they are able just by moving there, but their children will go further," I said confidently. "It's a slow process, but I have faith in them, and faith in Oliza to lead them."

Araceli sighed. "It's amazing to the point of frightening, those two working together." I nodded. "My parents have told me enough stories of war to make me glad that I was born in peace."

I instantly regretted mentioning my parents. To Lily and Araceli, they were very different individuals from the ones I knew and loved.

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