Hawksong Page 18

My mother made some reply along the lines of "I will consider it," but I did not truly heed the words. I grasped at Zane's arm, trying to remain standing as one of the now familiar waves of dizziness passed over me.

"Shardae, for the love of sunlight, go lie down." My mother's voice finally came fully to my ears. "You're frighteningly pale. "Why in the world did you let her travel in this condition?" This last was demanded of Rei.

"She insisted" was his answer. "Your daughter did not want you to worry."

"I'm fine, Mother." I even managed to release Zane and remain on my feet. "The spells are not nearly as bad now as they were earlier."

My mother shook her head skeptically. "Danica, you must have ridden for hours just to get here, on top of having been injured. If your guards and your alistair cannot convince you, then allow me to appeal to your sanity. Go lie down." I nodded finally. It was late, and I had ridden hard. "Fine, I will go."

"Zane, perhaps you might stay?" my mother asked as we turned to leave. "I have a question for you regarding your people down in the market. There's no trouble  -

Danica, please, go to bed," she interrupted herself when I paused. "This is hardly anything important enough to warrant your attention."

"Sleep well, Danica," Zane said, already turning to speak to my mother. I knew she was just trying to keep Zane away from me. Anything "hardly important enough" for me to be bothered with was surely nothing Zane needed to hear at this moment. She wanted to make sure I would go to my room alone.

I slept poorly, with a scattering of dreams I could not quite remember, yet I woke when dawn was barely brushing the sky, feeling surprisingly refreshed. I did not want to bother any of the Keep servants yet, so I slipped into clean clothing and padded into the hall unaccompanied.

Rei had been on duty guarding the hall, and at the moment he was deep in conversation with Zane.

"I wish I could," Rei interrupted whatever Zane had been saying, his voice slightly raised. "If you  -  "

"Danica." I had been seen. Zane cut off Rei's words and stepped past my guard to greet me. "Good morning. How are you feeling?"

"Fine... good. What were you two talking about this early?" The instant I asked the question, Rei's expression let me know they had been talking about me. In what context, I did not know.

"Idle fantasies," Zane answered smoothly. Neither his voice nor his face gave away his thoughts. However, I trusted Rei implicitly and knew that he would not have tolerated insults or threats against me. "Andreios has been telling me avian lore." That I could believe. Andreios had a passion for the old stories that belied his otherwise reserved nature. When prompted, he spun the mythical origins of our kind in a way that could make the hardest skeptic believe for a moment that they were real. As we descended the stairs toward the court, Rei made most of the conversation. "I spoke to Lady Nacola," he commented. "In light of the attempt on Zane's life at the palace, she has dropped her argument against allowing some of his guard into the Keep. Adelina and Ailbhe should arrive before dawn tomorrow morning, and I've asked them to report to me when they do so." Rei shrugged lightly as he commented, "Your mother wavers between threatening Zane's life and trying to preserve it. She's convinced that our people were somehow involved in the attack at the palace."

"Adelina's coming?" The words were sharper than I had intended; Zane's expression took on the barest hint of a frown.

I doubted that Rei was as oblivious to the tension as he appeared, but he answered, "She is the captain of the guard, and is more than capable in that capacity. In addition to her technical qualifications, she seems very loyal."

Rei's opinion sealed the matter. He was captain of the Royal Flight, and if he thought Adelina would benefit the Keep, I would have to accept his decision. Though the formal breakfast would not be served for hours, fruit, bread, milk and cider were available in the court for early risers. Several such people greeted us quietly before returning to what they were doing.

I helped myself to an ample meal. My appetite had finally returned, and it had done so with a vengeance. Though Rei had already eaten, Zane served himself a meal similar to mine, and we sat at one of the side tables to eat.

"What did my mother have to say about our flute-maker last night?" I asked Zane, trying to draw him from the melancholy silence he seemed to have fallen into. He smiled wryly, and the expression appeared forced. "Nothing important, really. I think she doesn't like the thought of my having time on my hands in which I can plan mischief."

Rei glanced at me quizzically, clearly asking whether he should leave. I didn't like seeing Zane in this mood and wanted a moment alone with Rei to ask what they had been discussing that had bothered the serpiente so much.

He made up his mind without input from me. Standing, Rei apologized. "I need to check in with my flight to make sure there won't be trouble when Adelina and Ailbhe get here tomorrow. Karl will be with you today," he added, nodding toward the doorway, where the slender raven waited unobtrusively. Quietly, so only Zane and I would hear, Rei added, "Karl's weapon was the one stolen by your serpiente assassin, and he has been doing everything he can to earn back my flight's confidence. I've never had a problem with him before; he's one of my most competent soldiers, and he is infinitely loyal. You can trust him."

With this reassurance, Rei left, and Zane and I picked at our food in silence. I made a few more attempts at conversation, to which Zane responded with what sounded like a forced attempt at lightness.

Eventually I gave up on discretion and asked point-blank, "Zane, what's wrong?"

"Why would I be bothered by anything?" he replied sarcastically. "I was nearly killed within five steps of my own bedroom, and you were injured. What one person does, several people usually consider  -  several people who, in this case, are considering what the benefits would be if you or I met with an untimely death." He stood from the table, and I could see he was trying to gather his self-control. "Excuse me, Danica. I shouldn't be sharp with you, of all people."

"In this situation, it's perfectly forgivable."

He just shook his head.

THOUGH ZANE MADE every attempt to hide it, his dark mood persisted for the rest of the day. In front of avians who had not spent as much time with him as I had recently, he must have simply seemed more subdued than usual  -  a favorable turn in the eyes of the court, with which we spent most of the day.

The two serpiente merchants, however, exchanged worried glances during the short conversation they had with Zane and me while we were circuiting the market.

"It has been a trying few days," Zane apologized as he excused himself early that evening.

The sky was well past dark and court had begun to tire when I politely followed Zane's lead. I

wanted to talk to him, but what would I say? I did care for him in a way; it had not only been a fear for the peace that had prompted me to drag the assassin away from him. But I knew that wary affection was not what he sought and would bring him little comfort. After several hours of tossing and turning in my own bed, I flew to the fifth floor and knocked lightly on Andreios's door.

Rei did not appear surprised to see me; he invited me into his study, bidding me to close the door behind me.

"You're worried about Zane," he predicted before I attempted to raise the subject. I had confided in Rei most of my life; I valued his advice even more than my mother's.

"He's been... tense for weeks," I admitted, hedging around the real problem, "but never so moody as he was today. You two were speaking about something this morning, something that upset him. Can you tell me what?"

"Fate," Rei answered after a moment.

I

could tell that the conversation was eating away at him as surely as it had been Zane. He paused, took a moment to gather his words and then asked bluntly, "Do you love him?" The question startled me. "No." I did not need to think about the answer, which sounded so brutal that I needed to add, "I do not hate him anymore, but love... I believe he deserves love. But I don't know if I can be the one to give it."

"Do you trust him?"

"I trust his intentions," I answered, trying to be as honest as possible.

"But do you trust him?"

Rei pressed. "If you were falling, would you trust him to catch you? Would you trust him never to harm you, no matter what he could gain? Would you trust him to risk his own life for yours, without hesitation?"

I had to shake my head.

I respected Zane, which seemed odd, when for so many years I had only known his name as a curse. But I knew that while we danced with peace, we were both still prepared to fight. If I was falling, I trusted he would catch me  -  unless it was a choice between me or one of his own people. I trusted him to never harm me, because harming me would destroy this peace  -  unless I reneged on this deal and my death was necessary. As for risking his life for mine... his people needed a king. I found myself pacing in a most unladylike fashion. Then I stopped, not because Rei ever objected to my un-avian outbursts, but because I thought of Zane asking me not to hide.

Rei sighed. "He said that you were passionate, that he was amazed by how much you could care even for someone you didn't know but to fear."

"And he said," Rei continued, as if the words came painfully to him, "that you deserved love. That you deserved someone... with whom you could cry or laugh without hiding your face."

I winced at the words, closing my eyes as they rocked me. I needed to speak to Zane. I might make a fool out of myself, but I needed to... In the next moment I felt Rei's arms around me, a warm comfort.

"I love you." He whispered the words against my hair like an apology, but within them was surrender. For him, the battle was already lost.

I looked up, though I didn't know what I wanted to say, and Rei's lips gently caressed mine. Time hung suspended for long moments, during which my heart couldn't decide whether to sink into my stomach or lodge in my throat, but then I started to pull away. Zane.

The door opened behind me, and we jumped apart. I spun around, and heat flushed my cheeks as the expressions on both of the intruders' faces made it very clear what they thought the situation to be.

Karl quickly averted his eyes while he fought to control his shock. Adelina was furious. Karl spoke before any of us could. "She... I  -  " He swallowed heavily before deciding to ignore what he had seen and spoke to Rei. "Sir, Adelina is here. You wished to have her report to you immediately?"

Adelina's eyes flashed at Andreios. "I didn't realize I'd be disturbing you." Her voice was taut with anger. "Should I come back later?"

"You didn't interrupt anything," Rei answered firmly. "Karl, please escort Shardae back to her rooms. Adelina, I can show you to your room if you would like to rest a bit, or you can have the full tour of the Keep now."

"I would prefer to know the layout of this place before I sleep," Adelina replied caustically. "There seems to be no telling what goes on here." I heard the words behind me as I walked out, suddenly feeling pale. Nothing had happened, and nothing would have happened, but I doubted Adelina would believe that.

Chapter 19

WE RETURNED TO THE SERPIENTE PALACE A few days later. I found myself watching Zane closely for signs that Adelina had told him what she had seen, but in the flurry of activity surrounding the upcoming holiday, she and the incident both seemed to fade into the background.

I sought out the dancer A'isha during any free time I had, and she taught me a few simple steps, sensual and exotic dances that I doubted I would ever have the courage to perform  -  until the sun rose on the day of the fall equinox and the serpiente lands were suddenly perfumed with sweets and spices, and the air rippled with the sounds of flutes and two-toned drums.

Unfortunately, the Namir-da was still far beyond me. A'isha's words on the subject were, "Perhaps you might learn it, in more time. You have talent, but... not much practice."

Throughout the day, serpiente spilled into the marketplace, their bodies, skins and belongings decorated with enough color, scent and texture to boggle the mind. I had barely stepped into the market with Zane at my side before one of the dancers that A'isha and I had practiced with offered me a gold and crimson silk scarf called a melos, the ends of which were strung with dozens of tiny golden bells. According to A'isha, the melos was given to dancers as both praise for their skill and a request for a performance. Zane made a move as if to decline for me, not expecting me to know the meaning of the gift, but I tugged it from his grasp. Then I did a few steps from one from the dances I knew, and saw Zane's eyes widen with shock. Laughing a little, I moved a few steps ahead; Zane answered the challenge, and within moments we had been ushered onto one of the many daises that stood in the market. Aside from A'isha, I had never performed for an audience before. Now I met Zane's gaze and took a deep breath to steady myself.

I inhaled the festive air of the Namir-da, and we danced.

In a society that worships love, freedom and beauty, dance is sacred. It is a prayer for the future, a remembrance of the past and a joyful exclamation of thanks for the present. Zane and I danced several times in the marketplace throughout the day. When we ran out of dances I knew, we improvised. When we were hungry or thirsty, all we needed to do was step down from the stage and we were offered more than our fill. The day started to wane, and a circular dais was constructed in the synkal, ten paces across in every direction and a few inches higher than Zane could reach while standing on his toes. The dais had no railing, and as night fell it was lit only by the torches that burned on the floor all around it.

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