Hawksong Page 17

"Your room, milady," Zane said, with an attempt at lightness, as he opened my door for me. He drew me into a soft embrace as he had in the market, one of those delicate touches he seemed to bestow without thinking.

Was it true that, beneath the volatile exterior I had come to know, he was as hurt and maybe even as scared as I was? Recalling my conversation with Irene, I was determined not to chase him off tonight.

I felt the gentle pressure as Zane kissed my hair. This was the point at which I normally would have pulled away, but I forced myself to relax. Zane seemed to feel my acquiescence; he skimmed his fingers over my cheek and jaw, and tilted my face up. He had kissed me before  -  as a challenge to my guards in the Mistari encampment, when I had thought myself to be sleeping, in the synkal in front of his people, before Adelina strode in the morning after the ceremony declaring me Naga. Now when his lips touched mine, the gesture was as intense as the time in my own bedroom at the Keep, but as leisurely as the slow kiss we had shared in his. When I did not call a stop, he pressed a hand to my lower back, pulling me closer. My hands had risen instinctively and had been resting on his shoulders as if I would push him back. I made the tight muscles loosen, and felt my hands flutter uncertainly. Zane's lips moved to lay a brief kiss at the bend between my shoulder and neck, and then another just over my collarbone.

I had a moment's thought, as vivid as it was brief, of a cobra's fangs sinking into the skin his lips touched. For a moment I felt myself tense, pulling away fractionally, and I felt Zane hesitate, frozen for an instant.

"I'm sorry." I didn't mean to say the words, wasn't sure what I was saying them for. Zane raised his face, and despite my intent, I flinched at the expression in his garnet gaze, which had the heat of anger and the sharpness of pain and yet was somehow neither of those.

Just as unexpected was the sensation of falling as he released me, almost throwing himself back as he spun away. He tumbled awkwardly to his knees, breathing hard, until his forehead leaned against the wall.

Frightened and confused by the sudden withdrawal, I knelt by his side. He recoiled and rose to his feet with the gracefully controlled violence of a serpiente soldier on the field. I froze when I saw his eyes flashing not with annoyance or amusement but anger, directed at me.

One, two, three paces backward, and then he turned from me, and I could tell he was going to leave me alone in my confusion.

It hurt to see him draw back from me, and I fought every instinct not to hide behind the comfortable reserve I knew so well. "Zane  -  "

He turned back to me and took a deep breath, his gaze holding me in place, frozen, as if I had met the gorgon's eyes, except for the frantic beat of my heart. "I do appreciate the effort, Danica. I enjoyed spending time with you in the market, and I'm glad to see you can be so comfortable around my people. But you're here alone with me now only despite your fear... and I'm not looking for that kind of sacrifice." His voice softened as his anger simmered out. "I would be your lover if you would trust me, but I don't want you to come to me because you feel like it is an... unpleasant duty. I would rather be your enemy than a meaningless obligation."

My heart lurched into my throat at his words, and for a moment all I could do was stand dumbly. By the time I had unraveled my tongue to argue, he was continuing, the last of his rage gone.

"If you want to make the offer someday when it means something to you..." He shrugged, and for a moment the brilliant, charm-birds-from-their-nests smile was back, but then he was gone and I stood in shock.

He is wrong.

Whatever else our relationship might be, it could never be meaningless. Heart still beating loud enough to wake the dead, I followed him into the hall, trying to discern which direction he had gone. In that moment of hesitation, my ears picked up a noise that registered as subtly wrong.

The sound came again: a familiar cry that raised the feathers on the back of my neck. Carefully but quickly I moved toward it.

Just a few paces beyond the hallway's bend, I saw two figures fighting. One was obviously Zane; his movements had the frightening fluidity of a serpiente warrior, and he fought as soundlessly as all his people. The only noise came from his opponent, and even that was so soft I would never have heard it had I not stopped in the hall. The second figure was either a slender young man or a plain, shapeless female; I suspected the first. The loose black clothing he wore left much to the imagination  -  as much as the silken scarf twined around the assassin's head, which showed only shadows over his eyes.

The word assassin came to my mind unbidden, but as soon as I thought it, I knew it to be true. I also knew, from the style of his movements, that the attacker was probably avian. He was fighting with the long bladed dirk many of the Royal Flight favored, and he guarded his back with the precision of a soldier who is used to de fending wings. Quickly my thoughts shifted. If the assassin was avian, caution made it reasonable to assume the blade of his weapon was poisoned. Depending on the strength, a scratch could kill; he did not even need to land a fatal blow.

I did not wait for an opportunity. Against avian poison, I was safer than Zane, and I hoped that even an assassin would hesitate to harm his Tuuli Thea. All but ignoring the weapon, I grasped the attacker from behind and dragged him backward to keep Zane from the range of his blade.

The assassin whirled, and I raised an arm to defend my face. I felt the knife cut through the flesh of my forearm and the heat of poison in the wound, but I also felt my attacker recoil. He had recognized me.

Obviously unwilling to continue the fight with me in the middle, the assassin spun and took off down the hall.

Zane moved as if to follow, but then he turned to me.

"Danica, are you okay?"

I was going to say yes, I think, but at that moment the world warped and churned around me, and I stumbled back into the wall. Zane gathered me in his arms and hurried to pound on a doorway down the hall. Almost instantly four of the guard emerged.

"Adelina, we've had a run-in with an assassin, avian, I think. Danica's hurt. He went in the direction of the north exit."

Adelina nodded sharply. "You, with me," she ordered one of her men, who I recognized as Irene's mate, Galen. To the other two she said quickly, "You, stay with your Diente, and you, fetch the doctor and Danica's guard. Keep quiet," she added, with a glance at Zane that lingered only a moment too long. "We don't want this hollered all over the palace."

"Let's get her back to her room," Adelina suggested, speaking to Zane, who nodded mutely. She added, "We wouldn't have moments like this if you shouted when attacked."

Zane shook off the criticism. "The injury isn't bad, but..." Time warped a bit right then. The next thing I knew, Andreios was bandaging my arm while the doctor paced in the background. "It won't kill her," I heard Rei explaining to Zane, "but  -  Danica, how do you feel?" he asked, noticing I was awake.

"Not well," I responded. My throat felt dry.

"You'll be fine," he assured me. "The poison must have been nearly pure to affect you this strongly, but it isn't designed to harm avians. You'll probably drift in and out for a while, and after that you might suffer dizzy spells for a couple..." Again the words trailed off.

The next time I woke, I was lying on my bed, still in the palace. Zane was sitting beside me.

"Water?" he offered.

"Please." He wrapped an arm under my shoulders to help me sit up, and I gulped down the drink he held to my lips.

"You could have been killed." His voice was carefully neutral, the same tone with which he had offered water, and I wondered what emotion he was trying not to share. I shook my head, and that made it spin. A deep breath grounded me, and when I was sure I was not about to pass out again, I added, "I assumed one of my people would hesitate to hurt me. Even a scratch from that knife would have killed you."

"How were you so sure it was one of yours?" Zane answered.

"The way he moved. Did they catch him?"

"Her."

Zane corrected. "The guard cornered the girl down the hall." He paused reflectively and then admitted, "It surprised me, too, that she was one of my people."

"Serpent?" I thought back and remembered how the would-be assassin had fought. "But she moved as if she had avian training."

"She might have been a dancer; a good one of that guild could probably imitate an avian fighter. My guess is that she was trying to return us to war. According to Andreios, one of the Royal Flight had his weapon stolen recently. Our serpent either didn't realize how strong the poison was, or she was willing to kill me. Any observer would have blamed the murder on your people, and that would have caused havoc."

"Have you spoken with the... her?" I could not make myself say "assassin" aloud. Zane shook his head. "According to Adelina, she took her own life when she realized the guard had her cornered."

My head was spinning again, and I put a hand to my temple as if that might keep the world still. "What was her name?"

"It wasn't in Adelina's report," Zane answered. "Only that the girl was a viper. Probably no one in the guard recognized her."

"Did you... see her?" I asked.

"No." His gaze flickered as if he was uncertain about that decision. "If none of the guard recognized her, I suppose I wouldn't have, either. They can deal with the body. I preferred to stay here to make sure you would be all right." Regarding me critically, he said, "You should probably rest more."

"How long did Rei say it would be until I am on my feet again?" I asked as Zane helped me to lie down again.

"Not much longer," he answered. "This is the most lucid you've been since you were hurt."

"How long ago was that?"

"Almost a full day. Close your eyes, Danica. Try to rest." I did as I was bidden, and almost instantly I was asleep.

Chapter 18

ZANE DID NOT MOVE MORE THAN TWO steps from my side when I was finally well enough to walk about. My stomach was still feeling picky, so the lamb dinner was further delayed, but aside from an occasional few moments of faintness, I felt fine.

"Are you sure you're okay to travel?" Zane asked. It was the hundredth time I had heard the question that day. Rei had asked as many times as Zane.

"I'm fine." I sighed again. ""We're already late arriving at the Keep, and I don't want anyone imagining I've been killed over here."

Both Rei and Zane had to agree with that reasoning. With one of them on each side of me, we rode.

It was a hard trip, but Rei had insisted that riding was safer than flying if I was still having dizzy spells. By the time we arrived, I had gained a new appreciation for how much time Zane had spent traveling this path by horse while I held to the luxury of flight.

At the entrance to the Keep, we were met by a flurry of the Royal Flight, led by Gerard in Rei's absence. Near the edge of the group was a worn-looking Erica Silvermead. She did not even seem to have the heart to give Zane a proper glare as we dismounted in the courtyard.

Gerard filled us in quietly as the horses were stabled. "Erica returned to duty a few hours ago. Her father's death has taken a toll on her. A few weeks ago, he would have been listed as a soldier in battle; now he has been labeled a traitor." The words made me take a second look at the young sparrow who stood across the courtyard like a lost soul. She was slender, hated the serpiente and had been out of sight the past several days.

Rei caught me examining the girl with a critical eye. "Adelina caught the assassin," he said, sensing my thoughts. "But if you are still worried, I can keep a closer eye on Erica." The offer made it clear that he too was concerned about Erica's state of mind.

"Thank you," I answered.

"Shardae, did you intend to loiter in the courtyard for hours while I wondered over your whereabouts?" I turned toward my mother, feeling appropriately chastised. However, beneath the censure, her face and voice both betrayed worry. "You have been missed these last few days, and the market and court are both full of nasty rumors. Karashan was on the verge of storming the palace, sure you had been abducted or worse."

"We had some problems with a... would-be assassin," I answered hesitantly. I went on to explain as much of the circumstances as was my mother's business, including the fact that while the assassin had imitated an avian soldier, Adelina had reported her to be a serpent.

My mother gasped. "Did it not even occur to you that you might have been the target?" I shook my head. "I wasn't. There was plenty of opportunity to harm me." She frowned. "If your theory is correct that someone is trying to start the war again," she pressed, ignoring Zane completely as she spoke, "then why would a serpent have hesitated to harm you? In the heart of the serpiente palace, that would have caused as much trouble as if she had killed your alistair."

"I don't know." I glanced at Zane, wondering if he had thought this point through.

"My best guess is that she wasn't trying to kill anyone," he offered. "She was trying to make it appear as if someone had attempted to kill me, but she probably balked at actually doing the deed."

"Nice to know your kind hesitates at some crimes," my mother said dryly. "The idea still seems unlikely to me. You are certain that this Adelina didn't make a mistake?"

"Do you have a better theory?" I spoke a bit louder than was necessary and gave Zane a warning glance before he could say the caustic remark that was surely waiting on the tip of his tongue.

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