Hawksong Page 11

"Please go on," I said, trying to take in what she was telling me.

"Zane will not push you further than you are comfortable going," Charis assured me,

"but the fact is that you are going to need to convince the serpiente that this is not a match of convenience. The Diente does not choose his mate for politics or money or whatever foolishness humans marry for. If the people think Zane chose you for any reason other than love, they will not accept you."

I tried to speak and found my throat too dry to do so.

"They will expect you to be afraid, but they will think you brave  -  especially since Zane plans to let it be known that you do not have the approval of your own kind yet, but are willing to go through with this and convince your people to agree with you later. He has turned this match into the very image of young, reckless love, and that is the image you will be expected to preserve among the serpiente public." I nodded, not at all sure I would be able to follow through. As Zane had pointed out, I could not even meet his gaze without wanting to recoil. "And this will involve...?"

"It will involve being closer than you are probably comfortable with," Charis stated bluntly. "Touching among my kind is not just common, it is expected. Stay near Zane; that you will need to do anyway. Forget your polite avian reserve. I'm not suggesting you two make love in the middle of the synkal floor, so you can cool that charming avian blush from your face, but you will have to touch him  -  even if it's just an arm around his waist. Remember, you are hopelessly in love. The two of you can't keep your hands off each other. Zane is determined not to overstep his bounds with you. He would risk the whole venture to keep from doing so. It will be up to you to take initiative and keep the masquerade going. Does that make sense?"

"I understand." Could one be cold as ice and still have her face on fire from such simply stated words? Apparently so.

Charis Cobriana nodded. She opened her mouth as if to say more, then closed it again. After a moment, she said, "Thank you, Danica... for being willing to do this. When Zane first suggested that we try to arrange a meeting with the Tuuli Thea and her heir, I was his loudest skeptic. When I heard the Mistari suggestion, I was horrified." She shook her head. "I would not have had the courage even to contemplate such an idea, much less the altruism to give up what you and Zane are giving up for your people." Words tried to surface and failed. "Thank you" seemed too deferential, "You're welcome" too arrogant. Finally I settled with, "I have lost too many people to this war. There was no way I could refuse to go through with something that might keep others from the same end."

Chapter 11

I WAS GOING TO FAINT. I HAD NEVER FAINTED in my life; it was not a common avian dilemma. But at the moment, it was less terrifying than the thought of walking in front of a large group of serpiente when the only people present who might consider protecting me were Zane Cobriana and his personal guards  -  guards I trusted to defend me in a crowd as much as I would trust them to knife me at the earliest opportunity. Finally I heard my cue and stepped from the antechamber and onto the dais at the north side of the synkal. Instantly I heard reaction from the crowd: shouts and questions, which were muted to dumb shock when I moved to Zane's side.

Zane's words were white noise in my ears as I stood beside him. I caught my hands trembling.

I remembered Charis's assurance that touching was common and even expected in serpiente society, and I wrapped an arm around his waist in an attempt to halt my own shaking. Zane seemed startled for a moment, then continued to speak, finishing with,

"Allow me to introduce my Naga, Danica Shardae."

The palace guards were visible in the crowd; though they were not in uniform for the ceremony, I had been introduced to the majority of them by Irene that afternoon and assured multiple times that at least one of them would always be at my side. They had been prepared, and even though most of them had expressed doubts earlier, they did not allow that hesitation to show now as they knelt.

Like ripples in a pond, each guard who knelt was surrounded by other serpents who followed their lead. Within a few moments of the first guard's movement, all but four figures had recovered from their shock and knelt.

"Kendrick?" Zane's voice carried over the hall, an ounce of threat mixed with light inquiry.

"I don't know what..." Kendrick looked around himself and seemed to notice that he was one of very few who were making a spectacle of refusing Zane's chosen Naga. As he sputtered, one of the remaining four went down on his knee. "She's a hawk..." Zane appeared amused. "Really?"

"But, sir, she's Danica Shardae!" the poor man protested.

"I just said that," Zane responded, refusing to be ruffled.

"Zane." In contrast to his easily projected voice, mine was soft, intended only for Zane's ears. He turned to face me, ignoring for the moment the serpiente he had been in the process of turning into a fool. "You can't expect everyone to just accept this."

"Of course not," he responded softly, lowering his head so his lips were just a short distance above mine. He had wrapped his arms around my waist, and it suddenly occurred to me what our pair must look like to the court. "But I can expect everyone to pretend to."

Another of the four knelt while he was speaking. Kendrick and the woman who was still standing exchanged a glance across the room.

Zane brushed a kiss across my lips, so briefly that I had no time to respond, and then he straightened to speak to the court again. "Kendrick, there's no need for jealousy; you are welcome to go out and find your own beautiful hawk," Zane said lightly.

"Zane, this is crazy!" This came from the woman, upon whom Zane turned his gaze with a bit of a smile.

"Pamela, no doubt you are right. I must be stark raving mad." There was an amused murmuring in the crowd as Zane continued. "I must have lost my mind to want someone as beautiful and charming as this for my partner. To think Danica Shardae could possibly have walked into the synkal, despite protests from her guards and family, despite the fact that they might very well throw her out of the Keep for daring to answer my dearest prayer..." At that he went down on one knee before me, one of my hands clasped in his. "... for her to abandon all propriety and become my Naga." By the end of the speech, Pamela was actually grinning. I could feel a similar expression on my own face at the dramatic humor with which Zane had spoken. The only thing that spoiled the moment was the glimpse I caught of white-blond hair as Adelina walked stiffly out the back of the synkal. My attention was drawn to Ailbhe, who looked after his sister for a moment, shook his head and returned his attention to the crowd.

"Zane  -  " Kendrick broke off as Zane tugged on my hand, bringing me down to kneel with him on the dais.

"May I?" Zane's voice was soft, as he reached forward and brushed a thumb across my lips.

I nodded.

In one graceful movement, Zane wrapped an arm around my waist and pulled me toward him, then gently pressed his lips to mine.

For a few heartbeats, I managed to ignore the fact that there were probably three to five hundred pairs of eyes on us.

I pulled back first, and Zane let me go with obvious reluctance; he kept an arm around my waist as we stood side by side, and with a sweep of his free hand he introduced simply, "Naga Danica Shardae, your people."

Two of the guard moved forward to flank us as we stepped down from the dais. Musicians took our place, and we were instantly surrounded by Zane's people

..my people.

I hugged closer to Zane, feeling the flutter of my heart beating so fast it was a constant hum in my ears.

Serpents moved differently than I was used to, and put less space between themselves and others. The colors that surrounded me were equally foreign. Used to the warm brown or gold eyes of the avian court, here I was faced by hot garnet, sapphire and emerald gazes  -  jeweled tones as varied and exotic as the sensual outfits and the unreserved voices and expressions the serpiente wore. I was like a child raised without color who had suddenly been thrown onto a giant painter's palette. It was impossible not to notice the warmth with which the serpiente greeted their Diente, or the chill with which many of them regarded me. Women found every excuse they could to reach out and put a hand on Zane's shoulder or arm. Occasionally a man would attempt to be equally familiar with me. At that point, Zane would meet the serpent's gaze with a polite smile and a spark of ice in his eye and coolly remind the man that I had been raised an avian lady and was not used to casual touch from strangers.

In general, Zane handled the crowd like a magician, shifting from whimsy to melodrama to soft threat and back to whimsy as effortlessly as water flowing down a slope. It was eerie to watch the changes come over his face and body as he moved from one emotion to the next.

A few hours later the throng started to thin out, and a midnight feast was served for those who remained  -  about half of the people who had attended the ceremony.

"Zane, where is Adelina?" one female serpent asked as we settled into our places around the table. "It's rare to see you without her."

Zane's light expression clouded for an instant, but he recovered quickly. "The rest of the guard is quite competent. She wasn't feeling well, and since I wasn't expecting trouble tonight, I suggested she take the night off and let Ailbhe take over for a few hours." After having watched the play of emotion on his face all night, I knew he was lying. But the serpiente nodded, not challenging Zane's words.

"Is Ailbhe going to lead Danica's guard?" another man asked. Zane appeared surprised. "Adelina and Ailbhe will continue to lead the palace guard together," he answered. "Danica will, of course, be guarded by the Royal Flight." The serpent choked on the wine he had been drinking, coughing and finally sputtering,

"What?"

Others at the table seemed equally shocked. "You can't allow them into the palace," one woman shouted.

Zane met the woman's eye squarely, not threatening yet but bluntly honest as he asserted, "I certainly can, and I certainly will.

Danica is my Naga, and you would do well to remember that she is yours, as well. I expect no one will attempt to challenge the presence of their queen's guards."

"With all respect, Zane," the man responded, "I can't see myself tolerating a flock of birds in  -  "

This time when Zane rounded his gaze on the speaker, his expression was strong enough that the man bit back the end of his comment. Quietly, Zane pointed out, "If you cannot tolerate it, then you are within your rights to attempt to deal with what you find to be a... distasteful infestation." I felt my cheeks color and was about to protest when Zane continued, his voice as cold as steel. "In that case, I would be well within my rights to charge you with treason, and both my guard and my Naga's will doubtless support the full punishment for that crime."

The man's face had gone white. "I didn't mean to imply that... Of course I wouldn't..." He looked around as if for backup, but found none. At last he gathered himself and finished, "If you believe they can be trusted in the palace, then it is not my place to contradict."

"Correct," Zane answered. "Now, shall we eat?" The meal was good; the dishes had been carefully arranged so I was able to avoid meat without the other guests feeling deprived. Fresh bread, fruits, cheeses and elaborate vegetarian dishes were in abundance. Venison, rabbit, pork and beef made up the meat dishes; apparently Zane had decided poultry would be inappropriate. It was nearly sunrise when Zane led me back to a room in which I would be able to stay. We had mutually decided that going home now would be both tactless  -  it would appear too impersonal to leave so shortly after the ceremony  -  and dangerous in my present condition. I was so exhausted, drained both physically and emotionally, that I had to lean against Zane to keep from weaving in the halls as we walked. I had left the Keep early, and now it was nearly sunrise again.

Laid out on the bed was a simple linen shift to sleep in, and I was relieved that someone had realized I would not be comfortable with the usual serpiente practice of sleeping in only one's skin.

"This room is part of my private suite," Zane explained, "and thus, it is one of the most protected areas in the palace. That should keep any disgruntled vipers from breaking in during the night. My room is through that door, the bathing room there and upon any future visits you may store clothing or other possessions in the trunks behind you. I took the liberty of having a few simple outfits made up, since it seemed likely an event like tonight's would occur and you would need something to wear." He paused, as if there was more he wanted to say.

When it became evident that he was not going to speak whatever else was on his mind, I allowed my curiosity to push me into asking, "How in the world did you get my measurements to have clothing made?"

Zane flashed a disturbing smile. "From Eleanor, of course." Eleanor.

.. "Eleanor Lyssia?" My voice was breathy with shock.

"Is that so surprising?"

Considering how easily she had agreed to help me that night, it should not have startled me to learn that the seamstress had been working with Zane. I remembered her greeting me in the market and remarking on how I had comforted Gregory, and the unease I had felt when Zane revealed knowledge of those hours. When we were children, she had been so prone to mad schemes and so full of impossible dreams that it had shocked everyone when she had tamely decided to be a seamstress.

Another piece of information clicked suddenly into place. "You helped design this?" I asked, gesturing to the dress I was still wearing, which had been so perfect that I had never paused to question it.

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