Hawksong Page 15

"So easy, Danica. If I had wanted to hurt you, I would have." I pulled away, my breath coming quickly as Zane continued.

"I can feel the beating of your heart, Danica. And I know that if I pressed my lips to your skin right now, I would taste its sweet flavor, and smell the exotic scent that makes me want to bury my face in that damnably golden hawk's hair." I hit the wall with my back and braced myself there.

"But as much as I want you, there is one emotion alone that can overcome lust, and that is fear." His voice as he said this was almost inaudible, it was so soft. "Never, Danica, will I touch a woman who fears me. Never will I strike or otherwise harm you unless you precipitate that violence by intending injury toward me or those I love. If we are in understanding on that, then you may be assured that this serpent is no threat to you." I had no words with which I could respond.

Finally, Zane turned his back on me. "It's late, Danica, and tomorrow will doubtlessly be a long day. Now would be the time to return to your own bed... unless, of course, you plan to share mine."

Even if he looked as innocent as he had the last night I had shared his bed, after the ravages of anger, threat and insinuation that had passed his lips this night... I couldn't imagine being bold enough to join him.

But now, as he paused in the doorway, glancing back with an expression that danced between amusement and dismissal, a flicker of anger slid over my fear. Before I thought better, I stepped forward to meet his challenge.

"Okay." I knew my tone was not friendly.

Zane tensed, his eyes widening for a swift moment. "Excuse me?"

"You are my alistair," I responded. My voice was calmer than my thoughts. "It is considered impolite to make a spectacle of it, but it is not scandalous for a lady to stay a night with the man she is tied to."

I was just in front of him now. Zane was watching me with a shocked fascination that gave me the courage to continue.

"What would be considered inappropriate is venting your anger at my mother's words on me." Zane jumped when I raised my gaze to his. I knew he could hold me if he tried, but he did not, and that made me bolder. "You've succeeded in frightening me, if that was your goal."

At these words, I saw him sag. Quietly, he answered, "I did not intend to frighten you." I let my expression ask the question.

When he spoke again, his voice was careful. "Your mother all but accused me of something that is, among my kind, the highest crime a man can commit. There is no trial, only punishment, because it is considered better to let an innocent man die than let a guilty one live." He took a heavy breath and let it out. "I know my kind has an evil reputation in the eyes of yours, but having that ignorance thrown in my face in such a way was more than unpleasant."

I waited for him to continue, forcing him to fill the silence.

"I apologize for my temper, and for being too furious to argue sanely with your mother. Among my kind, the constant control avians exercise over their emotions would be considered... beyond rude, a lie to those around you. So I am not in the habit of needing to conceal my emotions, even where such control is a necessity. Even so, I apologize for frightening you when you did nothing to deserve my anger."

"You are forgiven, by me at least." I was still trying to push back the rioting emotions of the last few moments, but my heartbeat had almost returned to normal. "My mother will not be so quick."

Zane shrugged, and the movement betrayed his fatigue as his words had not. "Your mother is neither my mate nor my queen." His hands on my waist were so gentle I barely noticed the touch as he drew me forward. He kissed me lightly, just the barest contact. "You, milady, are both." He released me and smiled tiredly. "We both need sleep, Danica, something you would not find in my bed tonight." I looked away at the implication in his words. "Good night, Zane," I replied.

"Good night, Danica Shardae." He sighed, and I heard the door to the adjoining room, which Zane had set up as his bedroom, close even before I had exited the front parlor.

"Everything all right, milady?" Karl asked worriedly as I stepped through the door into the hall.

"Fine," I responded. "You look a bit shaken," he observed. "A bit," I admitted. "But I will be fine. Thank you."

"May I speak bluntly, milady?"

I nodded, forcing myself to gather my wits and stand before the guard as his monarch, not as a scatterbrained chick. "Go ahead."

"I understand this arrangement is very important to you." Karl spoke with slight hesitation, picking his words carefully. "I understand that some risks are necessary. But some of the Royal Flight are worried that you are endangering yourself more than the situation demands." He nodded toward the door to Zane's room, and I knew he had been upset by my leaving him in the hall while I spoke to the cobra alone. "That you might not be willing to call to us until it is too late, out of worry for the peace." He took a breath and continued. "The Royal Flight is sworn to defend you, but we cannot do that if you will not let us."

I did not know how to reassure him. I had Zane's word he would never harm me, but he had also admitted his temper. If that temper got the better of him someday, would I keep my silence, or tell my guards and let them tear our fragile peace apart?

"I will think on your words." I was certain that Karl's worried questions would reverberate through my dreams all evening. "For now, good night."

"Good night, Shardae," he bid me. I saw him glance at Zane's door as if he was considering confronting my new alistair, but be just shook his head. I hesitated. "Your concerns about my alistair wouldn't persuade you to leave him unprotected?"

"My commander and my Tuuli Thea have assigned me to guard this door and the serpent inside. I have sworn my loyalty to you and would not renege that word now. I swear no harm will come to your alistair so long as he is within the walls I protect." I wondered as I walked down the hall whether Zane rested uneasily within the Keep, surrounded by guards who would only defend him in spite of their hatred for him. In my room, the curtains to the balcony were still open wide. The moon was barely a fine crescent, but the stars shone brightly.

When I was a girl, Vasili had joked with me that when I was strong enough, I could fly to the moon.

Such fairy tales had disappeared when he had died.

I had lost too many dreams to blood. If the price to end that bloodshed was dealing with Zane Cobriana...

I lay on my bed, hoping I would sleep and dream of Vasili, that I could speak to him of all the things I could not tell people in this world.

In the serpiente court, I had to pretend to be in love with someone I could not be alone with unless I could bear his shifting moods and sudden outbursts. In the avian court, I had to pretend to be sure and self-sacrificing, when in reality I was sure of very little. Even the questions I wanted to ask about Zane and our decisions were denied to me, for who would I ask? In the past, my mother and Rei had been those I trusted to give me answers, but they were against this venture, and I did not want to show them the depth of my fear. I considered speaking to Eleanor, as she supported what I was doing, but that thought only led me to wonder how much of what I told her would get back to Zane.

I began to pace in my room, too agitated for sleep.

I walked out to the balcony, where another guard was waiting in case Zane tried to enter my room that way.

"Good evening, Shardae," Gerard greeted me formally.

"I'm going for a flight," I announced. The guard nodded, without asking if I would like company. I would have someone with me whether I wanted to or not. The Royal Flight was not in the practice of letting its Tuuli Thea go anywhere alone. After the strain of the day, it was a blessed relief to shift into my hawk's form and spread my wings.

My path traveled nowhere in particular, though out of habit I avoided serpiente lands. I flew until the night was deep, just a few hours until dawn, allowing the steady beat of golden wings and the movement of the air around me to be my only thoughts.

Chapter 16

THE NEXT FEW DAYS WERE FILLED WITH desperate attempts to keep the peace. To their credit, the Royal Flight and Ravens reacted quickly when news came that there was an altercation occurring on the boundary of serpiente and avian land; by the time they arrived, the serpiente palace guard had almost brought the situation under control. The leaders of the two rebel factions had been killed in the fight, including Erica Silvermead's father. She asked to be dismissed from the Royal Flight for a period so she could see to the arrangements and mourn as was proper, and her request was granted. Zane and I made plans to travel weekly between the palace and the Keep, flanked usually by three of the palace guard and three of the

Royal Flight. Andreios handpicked the guards, to ensure that they would be vigilant about my safety and wary of the serpiente, but not hasty to cause trouble. I hoped that Adelina had picked her people as carefully; the coldness with which she always addressed me did nothing to put me at ease.

As the days passed, Zane spoke little to me beyond what was necessary to preserve the charade we held in front of his people. We avoided being alone together, unwilling to face anything more than our mutual efforts toward peace.

At the Keep, things continued as usual. Petitions were made of the Tuuli Thea, but rarely now did I receive pleas for aid against Zane's people. When such requests were made, the reaction came from the serpiente army, who took care of their own people more efficiently than our soldiers ever could have.

I explored the serpiente palace whenever I had a moment free, despite Zane's warnings of "Keep a knife handy, Danica, or better yet, a guard. There are some dark passages that would easily make an end to you if someone wanted to attempt it." I followed his advice when I was in unknown areas, though I spent most of my time in the main hallways.

I located the storerooms, the kitchen, the infirmary, the guardroom and countless other rooms. One entire side of the palace was open to the public and contained a forum, much like our market, that opened into the outside air, a gaily colored nursery and magicians and artists aplenty. At first I traveled everywhere with Rei or one of his people, but as time passed, the Royal Flight trusted more and more the palace guard to keep me safe.

Especially when I was traveling with an avian soldier, I was too often greeted with fear, but occasionally the rare serpent would approach and speak to me. These people were not surprised to see their Naga among them, but many seemed impressed that I had dared to join them. The air was rich with laughter, heady scents of exotic perfumes and the heavy web that seemed to connect all these people.

One afternoon, I watched the serpents' dance, a hypnotic and sensual ritual. The music was provided by a pair of musicians, one of whom beat out the rhythm on a low drum he held in his lap, while the other swayed with a flute.

The dancer was a young woman with eyes as bright as polished emerald and midnight black hair that tumbled nearly to her knees in wild waves. When she moved, the silken garments she wore rippled, showing as much as they concealed.

When she ended the dance, she was offered food and drink by her fans, with whom she flirted for a while before approaching me.

"That was impressive." I searched for a stronger word, but could not find one. The serpent smiled, a playful smile that reminded me of Zane's when he was in a light mood. "That was Maeve's dance, from the Namir-da," she explained. "I will perform here in the midsummer night, for those who cannot watch the dance in the synkal." She paused, taking a sip of the rich wine someone had offered to her, and then said reflectively, "Or perhaps I might dance in the synkal this year, since Zane cannot."

"Why not?" Though I had recognized the name of Maeve from Zane's description of serpiente origins, I knew not about this dance.

The dancer seemed surprised at my question. "Because a mated man does not dance Namir-da with another woman, and, little hawk, I don't think you know the steps." She sighed. "Zane is a beautiful dancer. He performed last year with Adelina, and I much regret that I did not watch." A slight puckering appeared between the woman's brows.

"We were surprised when Zane chose you. He is not known to be fickle, and he and Adelina..." She shrugged.

The words were a blow. I had known from the first that Adelina hated me, but I had been too much of a coward to consider why.

The dancer did not seem to notice my discomfort. With one last sip of wine, she kissed the drummer on the cheek and began to climb back onto her stage. She paused on her knees so our gazes were nearly level. "I do not know whether a hawk could learn the Namir-da, but if you are willing to learn, I will try to teach you. Maeve was light and golden like you are," she added.

"I don't have much talent for dance."

"Perhaps not, but when have you tried? Your people do not move as serpents do. Maybe that is because they can't," she admitted, "but I should like to teach you. Come back this evening, hawk-let." With those words she stood, raising her hands into the air with her palms clasped together as if she was imploring some ancient god or goddess. The drum began, and my would-be tutor closed her eyes for a moment, and then began to move to the rhythm.

I had a few hours to decide whether I would take the woman up on her invitation. I had watched her performance with envy and would have loved to replicate it, but I doubted I would ever be able to. Music was important to my people, but dance was far too raw a form of expression for it ever to be popular.

I did have one decision already made: I needed to speak to Adelina. I did not know what I would say, but I felt I should recognize her sacrifice.

I found my way to the guardroom without fault. At this time of day Adelina would probably be out, but I knew she was not on patrol, and someone might know where she was.

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