Hawksong Page 10

He took my hand and kissed the back of it. The movement was formal, but I wished it was not. I had sworn myself to another man, a cobra, and left Rei to wonder what had happened to keep me from naming him my alistair today as we had assumed I would. THE RECEPTION AFTER the coronation and the vows was a farce. Every member of the avian court approached me with congratulations and words of advice, and to all of them I wanted to say, "Do you know what I have done? What I am going to do?" My mother approached me as soon as I had a moment of peace. She offered no words of congratulations, but said, "You decided not to choose your alistair tonight?" The words asked many things.

I had practiced my half-lies since speaking to the council, and when I answered, my voice was polished. "We spoke a few days ago of acting in this war. I have been working with a select few on a plan that I hope will be less bloody than sending scores of soldiers into enemy territory." I saw a moment of surprise in my mother's face and continued. "I would like, when I announce my alistair, to announce with him a new reign of peace. I would like to announce that Zane Cobriana no longer stands as our enemy. And I intend to."

Skepticism was not hidden from my mother's voice as she asked, "What is this plan?"

"Wait, Mother," I answered with a sigh. "I will announce the outcome... in three days'

time, in front of the court. I will announce my alistair then. Until then, I will hear no questions."

I knew she wanted to ask, but she held her tongue. I was Tuuli Thea now; she had no power to challenge me.

It was nearly midnight when I managed to sneak out to the balcony for a breath of fresh air. I leaned against the railing, staring at the line where the treetops met the starlit sky. I was not alone long. Andreios joined me, not speaking but giving me a chance if I wanted it. I only wished I knew what to say.

I started to turn away, but his voice drew me back. "Danica?" His features were shadowed, but not enough to hide the look of determination on them.

"It's all right," he said, voice gentle. "I understand. I love you, and I always have. What matters to me is that you are happy. If there's someone else, I wish you luck with him." My heart raced at his words. I opened my mouth to say

There's no one else, but of course there was  -  a serpent. "And if you're just not ready, I can wait."

I was unwilling to lie, but couldn't tell him the truth. I reached out to him, and he caught my hand and kissed the back of it. I remembered Zane doing the same so recently and couldn't speak. Words of love seemed cruel when the next night I would pledge myself to another man.

The words I uttered were halting but honest. "You have been a friend to me ever since we were children." I saw him flinch at the words, but continued, "There is no one I trust more. No one I care for more. But..." I shook my head. "It's impossible to explain." I saw a sudden hint of fear and suspicion in his eyes and turned away before he could speak again. I returned to my room and collapsed into bed, where I stared at the ceiling and tried to block my own fears from my mind.

I WOKE A few hours after sunrise. Yawning, I dragged myself out of bed and called for a cold bath to try to rouse myself.

The hawk pendant was still around my neck, and I lifted it to examine the intricate detail of the wings and eyes.

Tuuli Thea.

Though I had been preparing for the title since my sister's death, the position still seemed unreal. The idea that I was now the one the Royal Flight would look to, the one who would hear complaints of the common people in the market and the one who would be expected to administer justice in response to a crime seemed impossible. And by tomorrow, the title will be Naga as well.

I did not wish to dwell on that prospect, but of course I was forced to as I took my bath and the cold water woke my mind and my fears.

The dress I had worn for the ceremony the day before had been aired and hung. Though the flowing skirt, decent neckline and low back designed to allow the Demi form's wings to grow if it became necessary was an avian style, the warm burgundy and soft silk reminded me of the outfits I had seen Irene and Charis wear. It would be perfect for the ceremony at the palace. I laid it out with a silent thanks to Eleanor, its creator. Struggling into the complicated garment alone might prove difficult; a maid had helped me with several of the clasps in the back the first time. But I would manage. The next problem was a slightly larger one.

I could not simply disappear all day and evening without exciting a panic among the Royal Flight.

I drafted a letter, though I knew leaving a note in my room was a rather guilty way of avoiding confrontation. I also worried that someone might find it too early. I needed someone who could cover for me for a few hours and then explain to the Royal Flight where I had gone.

Eleanor. Might she be of help? She was more open-minded than most of the court, and might be willing to be my intermediary. I summoned her to my drawing room and paced on the balcony as I waited for her to appear.

"I need a favor from you," I stated once the woman was present and the page-in-training who had brought her was gone.

"What would you like?" she answered easily, unsuspicious.

"I have been conducting negotiations with the serpiente," I explained, leaving out all specifics and watching her face carefully for signs of revulsion. Eleanor appeared startled, but did not immediately reject the idea. "The Royal Flight does not know what my plans are, but I am worried I will be missed while I am away today  -  "

"Won't they expect you to be at market for Festival?" Eleanor asked with wide-eyed faux innocence. "I know it's supposed to be a day for merchants and children, but I've never in my life known you or any of the royal family to miss it." In the recent days' mixture of confusion and tension, I had honestly forgotten about Festival, which occurred about two months before midsummer. Every year, market was filled to bursting with magicians, storytellers and other entertainers. Though the Tuuli Thea and her heirs were traditionally not a part of the celebrations, I had always loved the bright decorations and beautiful songs that accompanied them. Even the Royal Flight let its guard down, as it was unlikely that anyone would manage to harm the heir to the Tuuli Thea among such a press of her subjects.

"Perfect," I breathed. "Andreios won't be surprised if he doesn't see me until nearly sunrise." Pacing with nervous excitement, I asked, "Eleanor, would you be able to deliver a message to the Royal Flight? I might be back before they even miss me, but if not, Andreios should be informed of my whereabouts."

Eleanor nodded. "I can do that. Festival will last until sunrise. If I have not heard from you by then, I can speak to your protector."

"Thank you." I read over my letter one more time before sealing it and entrusting it to the seamstress.

Eleanor's gaze moved to the burgundy dress that I had not yet donned to replace the simple outfit I was wearing for the morning, and I saw her smile a little. "I know the design on that is a little complicated. Do you need help?"

"Eleanor, you are a goddess," I breathed. So far, this venture was falling into place easily  -  too easily. It was beginning to worry me.

Dressed and ready, I gave one last look to the letter Eleanor held. It was a concise explanation of my conversations with Zane Cobriana to date, as well as where I would be that evening, and why.

If you wish to seek me, the letter continued,

I recommend that you do so peacefully. I want this ceremony to proceed without bloodshed, and you are enough of a soldier to know that Zane's people will not respond well if your flight appears fully armed at the palace. I do not know what serpiente tradition expects of this ceremony; I will return as soon as is seemly. The letter was signed and sealed, and it would be delivered. Now all that was left was to make the words true.

MY GREETING AT the serpiente palace was much gentler this time, and it came in the form of a trio of young female guards. They said little, and while their gazes alternated between distaste and curiosity, I was neither searched nor struck, for which I was grateful beyond belief.

Once again I was led through the twisting maze of the serpiente palace, and though I tried to memorize the turns we took and the doors we passed through, I found it impossible to do so. I was glad I was a willing guest and not a prisoner trying to escape; one could probably wander these halls for hours without finding anyplace familiar. A tendril of curiosity rose. In the past, I never could have imagined exploring the inside of the serpiente palace, which was described as a labyrinth of halls and secret passages. Now, I might have a chance.

I recognized the large honey-oak double doors before my escort pushed them open to reveal the hall where I had met Zane the first day I had come here. Zane was pacing anxiously, while Irene and Charis Cobriana were seated at the large table that dominated the far side of the room. Now Zane dismissed the three guards with a word and greeted me warmly.

"Danica, allow me to introduce Naga Charis Cobriana," he first began formally. "And you have met my sister, Irene."

"A pleasure to meet you." I was very proud of myself; my voice did not shake as I greeted the present Naga of the serpiente, Zane's mother.

I also forced myself to meet her gaze as I spoke, as was polite; Charis did not attempt to hold my eye. "My son speaks quite highly of you." There was some laughter in her voice, as if Zane's speaking "quite highly" might have been intermixed with his speaking quite lowly, but considering I had been on pins and needles lately, I could only imagine how Zane had been around his family.

"How shortly should I expect your guards to storm the palace?" Zane asked, his voice also holding an amused lilt that did not manage to completely cover the more serious thoughts beneath.

"The Royal Flight will be informed of my whereabouts shortly before sunrise, if I have not returned by then," I answered, my voice as light as his despite my nervousness. One of the hall's double doors opened partially and Adelina entered. She nodded deferentially to Charis and Irene, then said, "Zane, you are needed."

"Am I?" Zane's voice was clipped, not cold but short with tension. "I'd like to know what your guard needs me for at this moment."

"I need to speak to you," she amended, with a look to kill directed at me.

"You can speak as freely in front of Danica as you can in front of me," Zane assured her.

A moment of awkward silence followed, stretching until Irene stood and put a hand on Zane's arm. The cobra caught Zane's eye and nodded sharply in Adelina's direction, a silent command. "She deserves a chance to speak with you before the ceremony. Mother and I will prepare Danica."

Zane hesitated, but finally led the way out of the room. They paused in the hall, and Adelina closed the door.

"She knows not to hit anywhere the bruises will show, right?" Charis asked lightly. Irene smiled wryly. "She knows  -  though I doubt Zane's in a mood to tolerate it even if she is justified."

"Is there something I'm missing here?" I asked worriedly. The implication that Zane's own guard might harm him was rather unpleasant.

It occurred to me again that there were reasons beyond history behind why the serpiente and the avians were at war. If a member of the Royal Flight raised a hand to my family or me, he or she would be ostracized to human society, feathers shorn, grounded forever. Yet Charis and Irene were discussing the possibility of Adelina's striking Zane as if it was commonplace. There were so many fundamental differences between our kinds, it was no wonder we had lived so separately for so long.

"Adelina and Zane have a complicated relationship. She has been very vocal with her protests of this arrangement," Charis explained.

As if on cue, Adelina's voice rose outside the door. The words were not understandable through the heavy oak, but the tone was, and it suggested that Charis's assumption that there would be violence was not far off the mark.

The voices drifted down to silence, moving away through the hall. When it was quiet once more, Irene spoke.

"The ceremony will occur in the synkal  -  that's where any public event takes place and every serpiente is admitted. Zane is very popular among his people, which means the synkal will be full. You will be separated from the crowd for the actual announcement, but later you will be expected to move among them. The serpiente do not expect nor want distant monarchs; if you refuse to see your people, they will not tolerate you. No weapons are allowed in the synkal, and in addition to Zane, you will have a guard with you at all times. That should keep any surprised zealots from putting a knife in you this evening."

My blood had already turned to ice. I nodded calmly, past the point where I could be shaken. I was used to walking among my own people, but I

trusted the ravens, crows and sparrows of my home.

"After that, the majority will be wary about starting fights. The guard will keep a lookout for troublemakers, but as I said, Zane is popular: If he seems happy, his people will follow him." Irene looked to Charis, as if wondering what she should say next. Charis sighed lightly before asking, "Danica, how much do you know about our kind?" The question took me aback. The answer was knowledge of how to fight them, and a hodgepodge of rumors and myths that might or might not be true. "Not much," I admitted.

"One thing my daughter would not think to mention," Charis continued, "is that there are some basic differences of behavior." At this Irene was listening as intently as I was.

"In avian society  -  correct me if I am wrong, please  -  one is expected to behave with a level of distance and formality that is all but unknown among my people. As Tuuli Thea, you are expected to be more a symbol than a power, speaking with cool rhetoric and moving with simple grace. As Naga, the rules are different. A serpiente leader is a friend to her people and sometimes closer, occasionally a rival, but never detached. You've spoken with my son enough to know that every emotion he feels, he shows, and that is what is expected."

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