Hawksong Page 12

"I suggested that you should be provided with something appropriate for tonight, yes," Zane acknowledged. "Though to give the credit where it is deserved, Eleanor outdid herself." The look in his eyes as they lingered on my form said more than his words and was enough for me to want to change the subject.

Zane seemed to notice my discomfort, for he cleared his throat and said more practically, "Eleanor did mention that the dress is difficult for one person to manage. Do you need help with it?"

Having Zane's assistance was quite different than having a maid or Eleanor help. However, as

I saw no other choice but to make a fool of myself trying to do it alone, I answered, "If you could undo the tie at the back of my neck, I can get the rest." I turned around and tried not to jump at the feel of his cool fingers on the back of my neck. I lifted my hair away and felt him hesitate at the sight of my golden feathers before loosening the tie.

Awkwardly, I managed to pull the night shift over myself before dropping the burgundy dress, very conscious of Zane's presence.

As I carefully folded Eleanor's masterpiece to store it safely in the trunk, I heard Zane sigh.

"Danica  -  " He broke off as I turned to face him, and took a slow breath. "May I join you tonight?" My nervous expression made him continue quickly, "I'm not asking for anything beyond your company in sleep.

Just let me rest with the sound of your heartbeat beside mine." The request was spoken with something like wistful innocence, and I did not have the energy to be cruel enough to refuse. After Charis's statements earlier, and my observations in the synkal, it was not surprising that the new king of the serpiente would think it natural to sleep beside his Naga, even in a scenario as strange as ours. The serpiente bed was designed with luxury in mind, piled high with blankets of the softest, thickest wool. As I lay on my stomach, the blankets and mattress sank beneath my weight until I was enveloped in a plush nest so comfortable that I felt sleep pulling at me instantly.

Zane stretched out on his side, still wearing slacks but having discarded his formal shirt. I was suddenly very aware of his arm across the back of my waist; he must have felt me tense, because while I bit back a protest, he was already moving to put more distance between us.

A sense of awkwardness hung between us for a moment, but exhaustion was a stern master, and it was not long before I was relegated to dreams.

Chapter 12

IN MY DREAMS, VASILI VOICED HIS APPROVAL of my choice, echoing Charis's words about altruism and adding to them words about courage. I took heart from his assurances, even though I knew they were only in my imagination. When Rei appeared, furious, I listened to him rage over my decision and waited anxiously for the scene to change.

I dreamed last that I was at my own funeral. The avian court was in mourning, and as much as I tried, I could not get their attention.

WHEN I OPENED my eyes, it took me a few moments to realize that I was awake. During my restless dreams I must have moved, and now I found myself lying on my back.

This change in position was not unusual for me. What was unusual was Zane resting against me, his body molded to the shape of mine. One arm was under my head, providing a soft, living pillow; the other was across my waist. The position was so startlingly unexpected that I hardly knew how to react. I started to pull away, and then stopped as Zane turned closer to me in his sleep. Again I shifted, and again he compensated, nuzzling against my hair, breathing in a gentle sigh. His arm tightened around my waist, hugging me close. Asleep, Zane was not thinking about who he was lying next to, but I did not have the courage to wait and see what would happen when he woke. Trying not to disturb him, I slipped out of his arms, placing bare feet on the floor and shivering at the sudden chill. I glanced back to see his eyes open, watching me.

"Morning," he said, voice soft. He stood and stretched, and suddenly I found myself a little too aware not just of his hypnotic garnet eyes, but of the broad shoulders and very bare chest that accompanied them.

I felt heat creep up my face and turned away, making a great pretense of searching through the trunk for a new outfit when there weren't really enough choices to make it difficult.

Zane knelt beside me. He touched my cheek gently, and for the first time his skin felt as warm as mine, as warm as his voice when he said, "Should I be flattered by that charming blush?"

Compose yourself, Danica.

I took a deep breath, recovering the fringes of my control and poise until I could look back at him placidly. Before I could speak, Zane tensed, withdrawing his hand.

"Please don't," he said.

"Don't what?"

He stood up, putting distance between us as if I had suddenly sprouted claws. "I slept all night beside you, Danica. Please don't hide from me now."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

He sighed, shaking his head. "You breathe and move and speak, but whereas I would know a serpent was behind me even if he stood as still as a statue, when I stand in front of you now it is like I am looking at a picture, something flat. Sound and sight say you are there, but there is another sense that feels nothing, a sense that is completely blind." He paused, as if searching for words to explain. Tentatively, I offered, "You can sense... emotion."

And sense a void when I hide that emotion.

He hesitated, as if turning the words over in his mind. "Serpiente legend, Danica... says that your kind have no souls." I was about to argue, but he continued swiftly. "I believed it, until I

spoke to you in the Keep. You weren't guarded then; you lost your temper with me, actually." I had thought I was asleep, but I did not say that aloud as he went on. "And for the first time, I wasn't looking at a shell; I was looking at a real person. I was looking, I think, at the compassionate woman who comforted a dying man and who would soon become a beloved queen. Your 'reserve' is like armor; it may be your strongest weapon against my people. Surrounded by such ghosts, a serpiente soldier is as off balance as any sparrow looking into Cobriana eyes. But we aren't at war anymore," he finished softly.

My heart gave a heavy thump as he stepped back toward me, as hesitantly as I had ever moved toward him. He lifted his gaze, and I forced myself to look into his garnet eyes, which right now were rife with unease and a plea for trust.

Trust. I didn't know if I had the courage for that.

He stepped closer then, and kissed me, chastely and gently.

A heavy knock, followed almost immediately by someone pushing open the door, caused both of us to jump.

Adelina recoiled at the sight of us, and with blatant disgust in her tone, said, "I'm sorry for the intrusion, but there is a bird demanding to see your Naga." She nodded in my direction, and when she met my gaze, her pale green eyes made me shudder. "Since I can't put a hand on him to detain him, it seemed best to get her quickly to avoid a nasty scene."

"Andreios?" I asked, trying to recover my composure and feeling torn because I knew that I was doing exactly what Zane had asked me not to. He pulled away from me, not looking my way as Adelina spoke.

She nodded. "He says he is the head of your guard," she answered. "I suggest you hurry, before he comes looking for you."

There was no chance to speak with Zane about what had just happened. I hurried into clean clothing while Zane dressed in the next room and Adelina waited in the hall. I tied back the chaos my hair had become, and within a minute I was presentable enough to speak to Rei.

Adelina escorted me to the reception hall, where Rei was pacing anxiously. I saw tension go out of his body in a rush when he saw me walking toward him uninjured.

"Danica, thank the sky," he greeted me. "Eleanor gave me your letter. What are you doing here? This  -  " He broke off abruptly, as if just realizing we had an audience. To Zane he said, "I would like to speak to my Tuuli Thea alone, if I may." His voice was dangerous, and Zane heeded the audible warning. "Adelina." He nodded toward the door, and his guard turned stiffly and exited. "Danica, I will be across the hall when you are finished."

Once the room was cleared of everyone but Rei and me, he began again to speak. "What are you doing here, Danica? Trying to get yourself killed?"

"Trying to end this war," I replied instantly. "And don't you see that it's working?

Adelina didn't let you in because she took a fancy to you. Do you think the leader of the Royal Flight could possibly have made it this deep into the serpiente palace if Zane wasn't trying so hard to make peace?"

"Danica  -  "

I interrupted him, knowing that I would need to convince him quickly or have him argue with me forever. "I knew the risks, and I was and still am willing to take them," I assured him. "The serpiente are sincere. I stood in front of their entire court, Rei, and no one tried to harm me." There was wonder in my voice. "For the first time, I walked among them safely. I spoke with them, without bearing threats. They are willing to follow Zane into peace."

Rei sighed. "But what of you, Danica?" He shook his head in frustration. "I know you will do what you must for your people, but what about you?" He paused to take a deep breath, and then continued intently. "The danger is not only from soldiers. You were raised a lady, and you were raised avian. Zane Cobriana... he will not understand that. He will expect more from you than you are prepared to give, more than any avian alistair would ask so quickly." He caught my hand, nearly pleading. "Danica, there are reasons our two kinds do not get along. We are not meant to. The serpiente are quick to anger and quick to show it. Even among friends there is violence."

"Rei, I need your support," I pleaded, letting my own self-control slip to match the emotion in his voice. "I know the serpiente are not the same as our people. I am not foolish enough not to be frightened. But I am willing to risk my life if that will keep me from holding another child while he dies."

Rei nodded reluctantly, his brown eyes still warm with worry. "I know," he said finally.

"I wish I could convince you, but... I know. You would not be the woman I love if you were not prepared to suffer for your people. But Danica  -  " He broke off, shaking his head, and instead asked, "You intend to announce Zane as your alistair tomorrow, I assume?" I nodded, grateful for his acquiescence. "I would recommend bringing Zane into the Keep with as few people's knowledge as possible. I will make sure the Royal Flight won't cause trouble, and the court is too well mannered to cause a scene in front of its

Tuuli Thea. Aside from my soldiers, the most zealous of your people will be guarding the Keep, not watching the ceremony." He returned to pacing. "They won't like it, obviously. They won't trust Zane, no matter how mellow his troops have been lately. But if you present yourself the same way you have to me  -  determined to do anything for peace  -  they will follow you. I hope."

I accepted his reasoning gratefully. Even when agitated, Rei had always been a clear thinker.

"My flight might be the greatest danger toward your plan," Rei continued. "Many of them would rather go against your orders than allow a cobra near their Tuuli Thea."

"I'm trusting you to keep them in line."

Rei sighed. "You know your mother is not going to agree with you."

"My mother is not Tuuli Thea anymore." My voice was solid, and for that I was grateful.

He nodded. "She has moved into one of the suites on the fourth floor of the Keep, and the Tuuli Thea's apartment has been prepared for you. The Royal Flight is going to be hard-pressed to defend both you and her from Zane if I also need to assign a guard to protect Zane from them."

"Zane can stay in one of the side rooms in the Tuuli Thea's suite," I suggested, having thought this out earlier. Seeing the arrangements for me at the serpiente palace had made me pause to consider what might be done at the Hawk's Keep. "There's only one staircase from or to the seventh floor, so it will be easy for your flight to keep track of Zane's movements and make sure anyone likely to attempt assassination is kept away." Rei nodded thoughtfully. "Unfortunately, that puts you in the quick of danger if Zane causes trouble or if anyone tries to harm him."

"If he wanted to kill me, he would have done it," I answered peevishly, my patience wearing thin. "There are a half dozen rooms in the Tuuli Thea's apartment, and to get from any of them to my room, someone grounded would need to pass through the central hallway. The Keep was designed so one man in that hall can guard the entire floor."

Grudgingly, Rei agreed. "There are four of my guard in the surrounding woods," he explained. "They can serve as an escort for Zane so our soldiers don't kill him on sight." Rei glanced at the doorway. "I'll need to send Erica ahead. She's a good fighter, but she's one of the ones I don't trust to keep her knife sheathed if she has a chance to put it in a cobra's back. I'll speak to her once I get to the Keep and make sure she won't get too hasty. The rest..." He trailed off. "You know this entire idea sickens me?" He said the words coolly, but the emotion in his eyes was anything but.

"I know."

"If this is your decision, I know you'll do it no matter what I say." He sighed. "If I fight you on it, it will only endanger you more. I'm helping with this madness for that reason alone: so in the future you'll trust me enough to let me know what you're doing." When I nodded, he admitted frankly, "I would like to put a knife in him myself, and if he makes the slightest threatening move anywhere in your direction, I will. With your permission or without, Danica. See to it that your... alistair knows that." Rei paused, then added more softly, "Be careful, Danica." Again I nodded, throat closed against any response I could make to this rare display of emotion. "We should get Zane now," I said instead. The words were harsh, but necessary. Rei looked like he was on the verge of carrying me out of the serpiente palace, without care of propriety or promises of peace.

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