Hawksong Page 16

I knocked on her door, but received no response. The guardroom dining hall was nearly empty, and the two serpiente there knew only that Adelina had left a few minutes ago. Another time.

Zane was attending to some routine chores, so for the moment, I had nothing pressing to do.

Perhaps the archery range would offer some amusement. Serpents, like my kind, were practiced archers. I was learning from Ailbhe how to use the serpiente-style bow, though I hoped I would never need to use the weapon as more than entertainment. An avian archer struck primarily to deliver deadly poison in an otherwise small injury. While the wound caused was minimal, the poison could kill a serpent in a heartbeat, but do little more than cause fatigue in an avian soldier.

The serpiente bow was larger and had a stiffer draw, and the arrow was plain and smooth, designed to fly far and penetrate as deeply as possible. It shot an arrow hard and fast, so a good aim could take a bird from the sky. I had been warned more than once to be careful if I ever used the weapon to defend myself, as a serpiente arrow that did not meet with the resistance of bone could at a close distance pierce through the intended opponent and strike anyone who stood behind  -  friend or foe. I halted abruptly at a turn in the hallway as I glimpsed a couple entangled in the shadows of the next corner. I started to turn away to leave the two in privacy, but my eye lit upon white-blond hair I could not help recognizing.

Adelina?

I turned back just in time to see Zane  -  for even in the darkness, I knew it was him  -

draw in a ragged breath and push her away.

I heard his voice, soft and torn. "Adelina, we can't be doing this."

"We are."

she responded practically.

"You know what I mean." His voice was a little more solid now, but no happier.

"Danica  -  "

"Danica can rot for all I care," Adelina said, snarling. She took a breath, and then said more calmly, "Zane, I'm sorry. But we both know you don't love her. You can pretend to the court, but not to me."

"Adelina..." He sighed. A moment passed, a murmured word from Adelina I could not understand, and then, "Adelina, I wish we could, but I

can't."

"You think the hawk would care?" Adelina challenged.

"I don't know," Zane answered. "But she is my mate. I wish... but wishes don't stop wars."

I had eavesdropped enough; this was an interaction more personal than I had a right to hear. But Adelina's voice rose and followed me down the hall as I walked away.

"Zane, I watch you and you are miserable," Adelina cried. "You are beautiful and strong and you should never be lonely."

"Adelina  -  "

"No!" She was nearly shouting now. "You are a cobra, Zane. A descendent of Kiesha. You are not a creature intended to live without the comfort of touch, yet that is what you are trying to do now."

Finally she softened her voice so I could no longer hear her. My step was quick and my route wide as I stayed as far away from that solitary corner of the palace as I could. Adelina's words were gnawing at my gut.

I didn't want Zane miserable, if Adelina was right about that, but he was still a cobra, and I could not make myself forget the power he wielded. Besides, how could I take the place of the woman who loved him?

The head of the palace guard being so vocal about her feelings for me made me nervous, too. I had no doubt now that Adelina would never warm to me. I only hoped Zane's guards' loyalty to him would keep me as safe as my guards' loyalty kept him. I ran into Zane's sister a few paces down the hall from her room. Irene was leaning back against the wall, breathing very slowly and carefully.

Though I saw no injury, I could not ignore the sight.

"Irene, are you all right?" My other worries momentarily shoved aside, I helped her into her room, where she sat carefully on the edge of the nearest chair.

"I'll be fine," she asserted. "Just a bit of a spell." At my look of confusion, she elaborated, "I get them sometimes, with the baby. Luckily, my mother makes a wonderful raspberry-ginger tea."

I faintly remembered Zane mentioning that Irene was with child, and that she had been white with fear when she had told him.

"Don't look so worried, Danica," Irene said lightly. "I just chased the father off for hovering. I don't need you doing the same."

"Who is the father?" My relief that he was still alive was palpable.

"Galen," Irene responded, her voice carrying a bit of a sigh. "He's one of the guard. He was with us at the Mistari camps."

Thinking back, I did recall the lightly built man who had sat beside Irene among the Mistari, though I did not think I had ever heard him mentioned otherwise. As if reading my mind, Irene told me, "We were trying to keep it quiet  -  so he would not be more of a target than he already was. If things are still calm by then, we are going to make the announcement at the Namir-da."

There was that word again. "One of the dancers in the market mentioned the Namir-da to me."

"That would be A'isha, most likely; she is the leader of the local dancer's nest." Irene observed, "She is very talented, isn't she?"

I needed to confide in someone, but I had not intended the words to sound as desperate as they did when I said, "She says Zane and Adelina danced last year?" Irene nodded, her gaze distant. "Is Zane really so miserable?"

Irene looked startled by the question. She paused a moment before answering carefully,

"He is very happy that the Mistari suggestion seems to be working. But peace, as wonderful as it is... peace does not keep anyone warm at night." More sure in her words, she continued, "Serpiente children are never alone, Danica. If their parents cannot be with them, they stay in the nursery, surrounded by playmates even in sleep, comforted by the nearness of others.

"Maybe in nature a serpent is a solitary creature, but I can tell you that my kind is not. That is why the idea of Zane's choosing a mate for politics and not for love was so disturbing. Because no one  -  not myself, not even Zane  -  believed an avian could be a mate, not in the true sense of the word. You're blushing again, Danica," she observed.

"I don't mean just physical intimacy. I mean comfort, and trust. Enjoying someone's company, and being soothed by their nearness. I suppose I mean love. Or if love is impossible, then friendship."

She shook her head, then continued gamely. "I see the way Zane looks at you when he thinks no one is watching. When we first began to speak about this, he told me flatly that he could never love a woman with feathers in her hair. But I watch him now, and...

he was wrong. He cares about you. And that makes it harder, I think, whenever you pull away from him."

He frightened me sometimes, unnerved me often, but I didn't hate him. Zane was trying so hard for this peace, and having what he was feeling put to me so bluntly was dreadful. Meekly, I stated, "Zane mostly avoids me now. He seems to go out of his way to make sure we are not alone together."

"He doesn't want to push you." Irene sighed, and added, "Look, Zane was on his way to the market a few minutes ago, to haggle prices and settle disputes and other busywork that, for reasons beyond my comprehension, he actually enjoys. Join him there, and I promise he won't turn you away. Give him a chance and see what happens." Suddenly Irene yawned and made a shooing gesture. "Go rake somewhere, hawk," she said affectionately. "Tell me how it turns out in the morning."

Chapter 17

I did as Irene had suggested, and returned to the market, where shopkeepers directed me to Zane without my needing to ask. Someone near him drew his attention to me and I saw him tense for a moment before he turned around. I wondered whether he was thinking about Adelina.

"My exquisite Danica," Zane greeted me, pulling me into a soft embrace in the marketplace. I lingered in his arms for a few long moments. Zane and I had perfected the appearance of an infatuated young couple. I was almost growing used to the little touches  -  a hand brushing a hand, his tendency to tuck loose golden hairs back from my face  -  that Zane added so easily to the play.

Remembering Irene's words, I wondered now if what I had taken to be a flawless act might really be more. It had been so long since we had been alone together, it was hard to know for sure.

Was I to blame for that distance?

"Danica, you must know Fisk?" Zane said lightly, referring to the metalworker he had been speaking with.

I did; Fisk Falchion was an avian man from the Aurita who had requested to trade in the serpiente market. There were serpents in our market now also, including a maker of the fine flutes used to accompany serpiente dance.

"Always a pleasure to see you," Fisk greeted me.

"The trade is going well?" I inquired.

Fisk nodded. "There were a few troublemakers earlier, but they hurried off when Zane came by to speak to me," he answered. "I don't think they will be back soon." Fisk smiled, an expression of fatigue and contentment combined. "The market here is quite impressive. I had not thought it would be so."

Bidding Fisk good day, Zane and I continued to walk in the market. "The Aurita has always been one of my favorite shops," I confided. "I'm glad Fisk was brave enough to take a chance trading here."

"He's a businessman," Zane said with obvious pride. "Our market is not famous for its jewelers, but our people are known for their love of beauty. For a man like Fisk, such an opportunity must have been the dream of a lifetime."

"Do none of the guard follow you here?" I had not seen any since I had gone looking for Adelina earlier.

Zane shook his head. "It's unnecessary. The market sometimes gets a bit rowdy, but I've never had any trouble. Very few people would risk hitting their Diente even in the hottest temper, and if it occurs, I can defend myself in a casual brawl." He added, "They are fond of you, Danica. I've had people come up to me, surprised at how much they like you. That being the case, my people  -  your people  -  will protect you from anyone who means you harm. Bringing the guard would cause more trouble than it is worth, because it would tell the people that I do not trust them." THE REST OF the afternoon passed with safe, neutral conversation about pointless things like the price of ivory and how Chinese-style furniture was coming into fashion among both avian and serpiente craftsmen. We drifted from stall to stall, presented with free samples at every stop. I knew that Zane rarely dined in the palace hall for lunch, though I usually joined Irene and Charis there. After sampling the wares of every baker and chef who insisted on feeding us, I wished I had skipped the formal meal, too. I pleaded an overfull stomach to avoid of fending the chef who offered a taste of roast lamb fresh from the fire. Once we were beyond the hearing of the merchant, Zane said,

"I've always wondered why you don't eat meat. I understand not wanting to dine on poultry, but even a natural hawk eats small game."

"My great-grandmother Tuuli Thea Caylan could not stand the smell of cooked meat," I explained, recalling the story. "She refused to let it be served in the Keep. Naturally, the cooks learned how to make dishes that Caylan would allow, and now meat is so uncommon in the Keep that I never acquired a taste for it." Zane appeared genuinely amused. "How utterly odd. Understand this means I must force you to try." He paused, as if considering which of the many merchants prepared the best dish.

"Zane  -  "

"Now, now." He led me back to the chef who had offered me the lamb a few minutes before. "If you've no moral or religious obligation against it, I cannot allow you to be closed-minded enough not to sample one of this wonderful cook's fine creations." The "wonderful cook" in question looked very flattered, and I had no doubt that he would have handed over the entire stand free of charge had Zane implied he wanted it.

"What is your masterpiece today?" Zane asked, his expression animated with mischief. The chef did not hesitate to reply, "I've a wonderful piece of lamb simmered with wine and rosemary that I'm sure your Naga would enjoy."

I resigned myself to tasting the cook's food, knowing that even if it was awful I would need to swallow and smile or else break the poor man's heart. Tentatively, I took the offered morsel and tried not to laugh as both Zane and the chef watched me intently for my reaction.

Come now, Danica,

I scolded myself.

You've walked onto the dais in the synkal, and now you need to gather your nerve to put food in your mouth

?

Appropriately chastised, I tasted the lamb.

Though like nothing I had ever eaten before, it was delicious. My surprise must have shown on my face, for the chef grinned and even Zane smiled slightly.

"Does the lady like it?" the chef inquired, though he doubtless knew the answer.

"Wonderful," I answered honestly. "Very... strange, but wonderful." Zane wrapped an arm around my waist and pulled me close, a playful half-hug. "My brave Naga Danica," he said, lightly teasing. To the cook he added, "We will be going back to the Hawk's Keep tomorrow morning, but perhaps next time we are here you might be willing to prepare supper for the family?"

The chef was stunned. "I would be honored, milord. Thank you." Zane shook his head. "My thanks."

WE DID NOT leave the market until after the sun had set. I could not imagine wanting supper after all I had eaten, and so I was glad when Zane passed by the dining hall with only a brief word of greeting to the occupants and a bid good night. Zane's mood was still cheerful, but I felt some of the humor fade to contemplation as we walked in silent company back to our rooms.

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