Hawksong Page 13

He let out a slow breath, and then we went to get Zane.

REI SENT TWO of his flight  -  Erica and Karl  -  to accompany me from the serpiente palace on wing.

Adelina and Ailbhe had only deferred to Rei's statement that he could not allow two of the palace guard into the Hawk's Keep because

Zane had forced them to. We could probably conceal Zane, but sneaking anyone else inside was asking for trouble, and if the palace guard were noticed before the ceremony, it would cause a panic. They would travel on horseback with Zane, Rei and two others in the Royal Flight until reaching the base of the Keep.

It was afternoon by the time I returned home. A party traveling on the ground would not traverse the distance as quickly, and I did not expect Rei and Zane to appear until that evening at least. But as day fell to night, I could not help worrying. I did believe that the serpiente were sincere, but believing them and trusting them were entirely different matters. If a scuffle ensued between Rei's people and Zane's, I did not know who would win.

Feeling vaguely ill with nerves, I sank into my bed after dinner. It was too late to back out of this, but I could not yet force my mind to accept the arrangement I had agreed to and all it entailed.

I was startled from my reverie by a knock on the door to my room.

"Yes?"

Rei opened the door, his long hair windblown and cheeks flushed. "Everyone arrived safely. One of the maids is preparing a room for Zane in the northern set," he informed me.

"Your mother has been staying in her own rooms, so we haven't had any trouble keeping Zane out of her sight." He stepped inside and closed the door behind him.

"Danica, you're pale as a dove."

I put a hand to my cheek and felt the chill of my skin. "I'm frightened." Rei caught my hand and raised it to his lips. "I will keep you safe." The words were a promise. "Even if it means defending Zane Cobriana from my own people so you can end this war as your ancestors should have, I will protect you." He sighed. "Do you believe me?"

"I believe you," I answered. I knew my smile was tired.

"Good night, Danica."

"Good night," I bid him softly.

He left, though I knew he would not be going far. He would not leave anyone else to guard my doorway with a cobra so near.

I slept well.

Chapter 13

ANXIETY WOKE ME EARLY THE NEXT MORNING. I bathed and dressed quickly before meeting up with Zane in the hall outside my room. Andreios was exchanging a few last words with Zane, detailing the scripted ceremony associated with the naming of an alistair, which Zane appeared fairly amused to hear about.

"Tell me, do the three-year-olds usually honor these vows?" Zane asked glibly. Rei kept his control, but the tone of his voice when he responded was sharp enough to tell me that the comment was not the first one Zane had made. "Yes, the decision is usually made when an alistair is that young, but he doesn't take the vows until he is ready. Hopefully you're old enough that they're clear to you," he added between clenched teeth. "If they aren't, I'm sure  -  "

"Good morning, Andreios," I said loudly, drawing both men's attention to me before someone was hit. "Good morning, Zane." If the two men ever did come to blows, the fight would be serious  -  deadly so  -  and I doubted they would both walk away alive. I glanced toward the other two guards who stood in the hall with us, and added quietly,

"Karl, Erica, stand down."

Both radiated tension. Erica especially trailed Zane with her eyes as if taking a sight for a notched arrow.

Karl flashed what looked like a forced smile. "Relax, Erica. We can always say 'just kidding' and run for our lives."

One of the lightest of tone among the Royal Flight, Karl had apparently been assigned to this job today to keep my mood from bleakness. His humor and voice almost served to disguise how raptly his attention covered the area, and particularly the cobra. Erica did not appreciate the humor. "No disrespect, milady," she said to me with harsh formality, "but I will relax only when I am shown proof that he"  -  she nodded in Zane's direction  -  "is harmless."

I glanced at Rei, silently questioning his decision. I trusted their loyalty to me, but worried that they might not go out of their way to protect Zane if someone meant him harm. In fact, both struck me as a little overzealous.

He answered the unspoken question. "I trust these two to be loyal to you without fault, and they've sworn not to harm him. When there are others of our kind around who might be a threat to your alistair, I will assign other guards. When you are alone with a serpent, I won't put someone in the way that might hesitate to fight him." Erica and Karl both looked flattered by their commander's recommendation and unflustered by the implication that they were less than fond of Zane. Since Rei himself had for a moment sounded regretful that he couldn't let them kill their charge, I found it difficult to fault them.

Instead I looked at Zane, who offered a brave smile and a shrug. The serpent was certainly making an attempt to look harmless. He had abandoned his normal black attire in favor of calfskin pants so light they were nearly golden, and a loose shirt several shades darker. The brown tones made his garnet eyes appear less red, and his fair skin warmer.

However, clothing could not completely disguise the smooth tension of his movements, so subtly different than any avian, or completely dim the fire in his gaze. I was dreading introducing him to my people.

"Milady, it is time." Eleanor was slightly breathless as she darted into the room, her cheeks flushed with excitement.

Zane offered his arm, at the same time delivering to me a sardonic smile. "This is going to be interesting."

There was some carefully controlled surprise among my people when I first descended the stairs with Zane instead of Rei, but no instant fury. It occurred to me that most of these people had never seen Zane before, and unless they caught sight of the signet ring he was wearing or met his Cobriana eyes  -  something he had assured me he could avoid  -  they were unlikely to recognize him.

But as I crossed the room to the slight stage in the back of the court, I could see the ripple of unease in those nearby. Instincts. Even a sleeping dormouse wakes up and knows when the cat is nearby; so it was among the court. Zane, for all his attempts to appear harmless, would never pass for avian.

They looked at Rei, and at me, and at the other members of the Royal Flight who were standing nearby, but since my guards and I were not visibly upset, they assumed their own discomfort was imagined. Only the sight of the blood rushing from my mother's face as she fainted set my heart racing. Gerard caught her, looking a little surprised and unsure of what to do with his charge. Luckily, she had been standing at the far back of the room, and only those nearest to her had noticed. I would deal with her later. Now it was time to step onto the platform.

"Tuuli Thea Danica Shardae," Rei greeted me. "You have chosen this man as your alistair, as your protector, of your own free will and without coercion."

"I have." My voice did not tremble.

Rei turned to Zane. "Are you willing to swear upon your own spirit and the sky above that you will protect Danica Shardae from all harm?"

"Upon my own spirit, I will so swear."

"And do you swear you will never raise voice or hand against her?" Rei spoke the words calmly, but the expression in his eyes as he met Zane's gaze fearlessly was anything but calm.

Zane hesitated a fraction of a second; whether surprised by Rei's bold action or debating whether he was willing to so swear, I did not care to know. "Never would I willingly harm the woman I love."

Rei caught the wording, and for a moment I saw his jaw clench against the desire to argue. He knew as well as I that Zane had made no claims of love toward me, and that his promise not to harm the woman he loved did not protect me.

Rei's gaze flickered to me, beseeching, and I gave a nod for him to continue. I understood Zane's hesitation, despite how unnerving it was; if it came down to a choice of him or me, he would defend himself and his people. He could not swear never to harm me without knowing whether peace between our two peoples would work.

"Danica Shardae is Tuuli Thea, and so when you swear to her, you swear to all her people," Rei continued, his voice sounding strained. "Will you protect the Tuuli Thea's people as you would your own family, and risk all that is necessary to defend them?"

"I swear upon the tears of the goddess Anhamirak, I will do everything within my power to stop the bloodshed among the Tuuli Thea's people." In those words I heard sincerity at last, and though I did not know the name of the goddess to whom Zane had made the vow, I knew from his tone that he was honest in his words. There were scholars better educated than I among the court, and as I heard their frantic whispers, I knew that some had understood the reference. I also saw with dread that my mother was stirring. As Rei continued, I watched her set her feet on the ground, her reserve shattered and her face holding abject horror.

"Danica Shardae, Tuuli Thea, you have chosen this man as your alistair," Rei continued formally, his voice rising slightly above the noise in the crowd. "Zane Cobriana, you have sworn to defend Danica Shardae, your Tuuli Thea. Upon the words you have spoken, you are bound for life."

Those words for life had a fateful ring.

A hush descended over the avian court, and in those moments, as I waited for a reaction, I met my mother's gaze. She looked at me with sadness and anger and shook her head. Then she began to walk out the back of the room.

Gerard tried to stop her, and I saw her spine go rigid. "The Tuuli Thea has made her choice. My words are meaningless here," she said loudly without turning. I nodded to the guard, and he hurried after the Tuuli Thea he had first served as she left. Her rejection cut, but I had expected it.

With a deep breath to loosen the knot in my throat, I stepped forward. The court quieted, awaiting my words, stunned by what they could not believe. I stated simply, "Yes, it is true. This is Zane Cobriana you see before you." I had to raise my voice slightly over the protests as I continued. "Yes, it is Zane Cobriana who has just sworn to defend your Tuuli Thea  -  and you." That quieted them slightly, and I took advantage of the silence. "When the serpiente first spoke to me of peace, I was doubtful. But I am your queen, and as such, I am willing to do what I must to protect you, my people. That means ending this war any way I can." I stood at attention, left hand grasping my right wrist behind my back  -  the pose of a soldier, which I had picked up from Rei and Vasili when I had been a girl. I knew everyone who had ever fought in our armies or lost someone from our armies would recognize the posture.

"You know me," I implored them. "You know that I do not avoid going out to the field and caring for the wounded. You know that I do not flinch from the bodies that must be brought home. I do not intend to be a queen who ignores the suffering of her people. I have held your own children's hands, and talked to them as they died, so they would not be alone. And I am tired of it."

I took Zane's hand, grasping it on the stage in the avian court, in front of so many avian ladies and gentlemen who were shocked by even that small contact.

"I feared this man, as you do. I hated him, as you do. But when our soldiers cut down his brother in the field, I was the one left to sit by that boy's side as he died. And he was no different than my brother who died the same day, or the alistair and family I lost when I was a child. Then Zane came to me, asking for peace, and I had to listen." I took a breath, trying to calm myself. I had not meant to get so carried away, but now the court was watching me in amazement. Perhaps that was a good thing. "Zane has sworn to defend my people, and as Naga of the serpiente I am equally sworn to defend his." There was some more protest at this last statement, and I waited for it to die down before I said softly, "We have all lost loved ones. And if I need to go onto the field and disarm every frightened soldier by hand, alone in the night, I will do it. As of this moment, I declare this war over. Any injury done to the serpiente will be looked upon as injury to my people, and to your people."

The court did not know how to react. They had been raised avian and were not taught to loudly express outrage or fear. However, under the circumstances, polite caution and distaste could not cover what they wanted to say.

Finally, one soft voice pervaded the area. "Milady, how can we be sure of their intentions?" The crowd parted so the woman who was speaking could approach me. "Of course I have faith in you and your judgment, but might the serpiente even now be planning to attack as soon as you recall our soldiers?"

"I had a similar thought when Irene Cobriana first came to the Keep to ask for a meeting in Mistari land," I admitted. "The Royal Flight and my own family both cautioned me against trusting the serpiente, and I was spirited back to the Keep. But Zane was not that easily dismissed," I

recalled. "And when he showed up in my suite a few weeks later, unbeknownst to my guards, my mother and everyone else in the Keep, it was hard to believe that he intended me harm."

Rei was visibly perturbed by these words, but he said nothing as I continued to speak.

"Had the serpiente wanted to injure me, there would have been opportunity  -  here in the Keep, and at the serpiente palace on the two occasions that I have visited there. Yet I stand before you unscratched." I spoke softly, but I knew my voice would carry in the near-silence of the court. "I ask for trust. I ask that I might never again hold another dying soldier  -  avian or serpiente  -  in my arms. I ask for trust. I ask that you put away your weapons so we can mourn the dead properly, and then move on. I ask for trust. I ask that your children can learn of peace instead of war. I ask for trust. It is a lot, I know; it isn't easy to give. But it is all I ask."

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