Hawksong Page 14

Chapter 14

ESCORTED BY ANDREIOS AND KARL, ZANE and I withdrew, leaving the court alone to make their decisions. I heard several voices raised, among them Eleanor, loudly declaring their support before anyone else could speak.

After Zane and I had settled onto the balcony that marked the highest point in the Keep, I asked, "Who is Anhamirak?" Two of the Royal Flight were waiting discreetly on the stairs down to the main apartment; Rei had reluctantly gone to bed after what must have been more than a full night and day awake.

"Hmm?" Zane's gaze was distracted as he looked out over the surrounding forest and distant mountains and doubtless wondered how the argument back in the court was going. If it went badly, there were seven floors between him and safety.

"Anhamirak," I repeated, trying to keep either of us from mulling over what was happening. "You swore to her during the ceremony, when Rei asked whether you would defend my people as your own."

"When Egypt was young, and the first pyramids were being built with the sweat and blood of slavery," Zane recited, not turning his gaze from the view, "there was a sect of thirteen men and women, the high priestess of whom was a woman called Maeve. They worshiped a goddess named Anhamirak, who ruled over life, light, love, beauty  -  and above all, free will."

Zane sighed. "As the myth goes, a creature by the name of Leben appeared to Maeve and instructed her to stop her worship of Anhamirak and turn it onto him. He was powerful, but not a god, and Maeve knew it. She seduced him, and in an attempt to gain her favor, he gave to her ageless beauty and the second form of an elegant viper with ivory scales. She demanded that he do the same for all her people, including a woman named Kiesha. To Kiesha, Leben gave the form of a king cobra, and from her son  -  or so the story goes  -  the Cobriana line is descended."

"Do you believe it?" I asked, rather entranced by the tale.

"I believe this." Zane held up a hand, and I

could not help stepping back as the ink-dark snakeskin rippled into appearance over his bare skin, only to subside again as if it had never existed. "And I believe this." I had been watching him so intently that I had no chance to avert my gaze as he lifted garnet cobra's eyes, halting the air in my lungs. "I have seen the serpents dance, and if it isn't magic, I can find no better word." He looked away, returning those frightening jeweled eyes to the landscape as he leaned against the balcony railing. My breath let out in a rush. "What about you, Danica?" he asked. "What do you believe in?" The story behind my kind was equally magical, but it had always been told to me as just that: a story and nothing more. Now I moved beside Zane and looked out at the land that held his attention. "I believe in the air beneath my wings when I soar."

"Is this what the world looks like when you are flying?" I tried to see the land below as would someone who had not seen it from this height every day. The sky was just beginning to color with the pink and violet streaks of twilight, and long shadows streaked the ground. "It's not as clear as this," I responded, trying to recall what the ground did look like to a hawk in flight. "When you fly, the air is mostly what you are aware of... how it moves, and how you move in it. The ground isn't important unless you are diving, landing or falling."

"Falling?"

I had been hit once by a serpiente arrow, clipped in the wing while I was flying from a battle. Falling, unable to steady myself for several seconds, I had only escaped the deadly impact with the ground because one of Rei's soldiers had caught me. It was not a moment I wanted to dwell on  -  or repeat.

"It happens sometimes" was all I told Zane.

"Milady?" The voice came from a very hesitant young sparrow, whose gaze flickered to and from Zane with bright fear. "When you have a moment, your mother would like to speak to you and your... alistair." She hesitated, as if my mother had used different words to describe Zane.

"She is welcome to come speak to me at any time," I responded, both relieved that my mother was unlocking herself from her room and dreading the confrontation to come.

"Kindly invite her to join us here."

The sparrow bobbed a clumsy curtsy and disappeared quickly.

"I think she's afraid of me," Zane observed, a dark humor showing through in his tone. He leaned back against the railing, crossing his arms, then pausing  -  like a cobra, coiled and waiting, a deep stillness seeping into him as he prepared to face my mother. I wondered if he even realized how dangerous he appeared in that moment. My kind lets off subtle signs of life even when we're not moving: the heat of our bodies and the quick pace of our heartbeat. When Zane stood still, even his breathing slowed, as if he might simply dissolve into the night. The only sign of life in him was the flash of light off his iridescent gemstone eyes.

Please don't hide.

I wondered if, when I looked at him now, I saw and felt what he did when I pulled on my mask of avian reserve. If it was true... I could see how the myths had begun, saying we had no souls.

The time had passed for me to respond to Zane's forcedly light remark, and now an awkward silence stretched between us, both of us hidden behind our own shields and both unnerved by them.

"I think she's not the only one," he added under his breath as my mother ascended the stairway.

"Danica Shardae, you are Tuuli Thea now, and I have no power to override your decisions." Nacola's voice was forced, as if she had rehearsed this speech many times before coming to me. "But I will not support your agreeing to this sickening arrangement."

"I'm sorry to hear that." I truly was. My mother's approval was something I had always strived for, and the lack of it now left me groundless. "But my people must come before even you, Mother. As your people should come before your daughter."

"Child, I would not protest so if I thought this would work," my mother argued. "I understand the sacrifices a queen must make for her people. But those sacrifices must be for a reason, and this

... this is a reasonless act. Our two kinds are not meant to live together, Danica," she said softly. "From the very first we have been enemies, and so it will be until either they are destroyed or we are."

"You're absolutely correct." I jumped at Zane's voice, and my gaze shifted to him.

"Snakes and birds are not creatures intended to live together. As I recall, hawks will snatch young cobras from the nest and eat them. But surely you are forgetting something rather important, milady Nacola." He paused there and waited as if for an answer.

My mother did not reply, and finally Zane just sighed.

"The first of my kind was a human woman. Surely your kind comes from like roots. We have human minds and human bodies. If we can speak as humans do, and love as humans do, then what makes us so different?" Zane's words were simple, but the anger and hope behind them were anything but. "Serpents and birds are not meant to live together," he asserted again, "but I personally like to believe that we are more than our animal counterparts."

"Your people"

my mother spat, in a rare show of fury, "murdered my parents. My sisters, my husband, my son and my daughter  -  "

"And your people."

Zane replied with equal vehemence, "have taken from me a father, two uncles, three brothers, a sister and a niece who had not even drawn her first breath. What possible harm had that infant done to you?"

He turned away as if he did not trust himself to face her, and he paced to the railing.

"Milady Nacola," he said tightly, "I don't want to fight with you. I fear I lose my temper too easily for your world's standards. What I am trying to say is that I am willing to forgive history and try to act as the human blood in me implores."

"Your temper is renowned," my mother responded, her voice once again under control, and acid in its detachment. "Your kind has never been famous for holding in check its tongue or its hands, and I wouldn't expect its king to do any better." Zane drew a breath as if to speak, but my mother continued. "With that in mind, surely you can understand my reluctance to trust you with my daughter."

"I have given my word I will not harm her."

Zane interjected, but my mother simply shook her head.

"And when that Cobriana temper breaks loose, what then?" she argued, for all intents and purposes ignoring my presence. "Violence is common among the serpent court, or so I hear, and accepted to a much greater degree than it is in the Keep. I don't expect Danica has had much experience with being struck, and I don't wish her to gather such familiarity."

"Nacola  -  "

"Allow me to finish." To my shock, my mother met Zane's eyes with her own fiery golden gaze, and Zane was the one who looked away. "If I am to have no say in this decision, I would at least speak my mind to you."

"Continue." The word was tense, and Zane pointedly avoided looking at me as he said it.

My mother stepped closer. "If you ever put a hand on my daughter  -  "

"I assure you, fair Nacola, I've no intent to bruise such soft skin as Danica's. "With that point overemphasized, is there anything else you would like to accuse me of?"

"She is not one of the casual women of your court, Zane," my mother argued next.

"Quite obviously," came Zane's silken reply.

"Your word that you will never force her to your bed." The order came difficultly to my mother's lips, and Zane recoiled in response, his eyes narrowing in fury.

"Would my word mean anything to you, Nacola? The word of a cobra, for your daughter's virtue?"

My mother hesitated, her lips parting as if she would speak and then sealing closed again without a sound passing them. Her gaze was hard, clearly speaking the answer: No, his word would mean nothing to her.

"Leave now, Nacola Shardae." Zane's voice was cold as ice. Zane whirled to face me, turning from my mother's protest. "Danica, get her out of here before I hurt her."

I stumbled back, but did not stop to question him. I caught my mother's arm, imploring her, "Mother, please return to your room now."

"Danica  -  " She broke off, and with one more fleeting look at Zane, she nodded. We walked in silence until we reached the doorway to her room, the place where my sister had once slept, long ago when I had been a child.

"I know you will go through with this," my mother said flatly, her voice soft and sad.

"Even Karashan admits that you are too brave for any of us to change your mind, Danica. But please don't let that courage make you careless. Keep a guard within shouting range, and never let the door lock when the two of you are alone. Sleep with a knife under your pillow if you must, and be careful, because he will hurt you if you do not protect yourself." She sighed, her voice a whisper as she added, "History repeats itself too easily."

I thought of the knife in the back that had ended Alasdair's life and nodded. The events of both this evening and the past forced me to respect my mother's words. I returned to my balcony to find Zane gone; the guards informed me that he had retreated to his room and asked not to be disturbed until next dawn by anyone but me.

Chapter 15

TENTATIVELY I KNOCKED ON ZANE'S DOOR. I do not know what mad instinct possessed me to do so, but I did not think it wise to let the night pass without speaking to him.

I implored Karl, the guard assigned to this hallway, to stand outside the room instead of following me in. I did not know what kind of mood I would find Zane in, and worried that my guard might act too hastily.

"Enter." Zane's voice was husky, as if he had been shouting, though I had heard nothing. I pushed open the door to the double rooms that Zane had made his own. The curtains to the circular balcony were normally open in good weather, but tonight they were drawn closed; only faint streaks of twilight seeped through the woolen window covering, and it took me a few seconds to adjust my eyes to the dimness.

Zane was sprawled across the low couch in the front room, his gaze resting contemplatively upon the bands of light that fell under the window. He raised his eyes to me when I stepped into the room, but made no move to stand.

"Questions, Danica?" His voice was light, almost musical, betraying no hint of his earlier anger. Only the scant light reflected in his eyes still showed that violent emotion.

"Do you want to ask, or would you prefer not to know what you have tied yourself to?" The spark of his eyes and the singsong quality of his voice made the feathers on the back of my neck rise.

"Are there questions I should ask?"

Now Zane stood, the act as liquid and threatening as his serpent counterpart coiling to strike, and I jumped at the movement. I saw the vague amusement on his face as he noticed my reaction.

"Relax. I'm not going to bite," he said, but of course the words were not intended to relax me.

Every instinct screamed at me to run, that there was a predator in the room, but I could not have moved a muscle if I had tried.

As Zane approached, he moved with a slow beauty and deadly silence. "So easy, Danica," he whispered, and now the pain was back in his voice and in the eyes that held me frozen where I stood. "Despite how I have despised your kind for so many years...

you alone are so very fragile."

He lifted his hand, and I saw it coming but could barely move. At last, too late to turn away, I managed to break his gaze and close my eyes as I prepared for him to hit me. He checked the blow so close that I felt the air ruffle my hair, but when he touched my skin, it was not in anger; all I felt was a soft caress, the backs of his fingers brushing over my cheek.

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