Hawksong Page 19

Finally, as the last rays of the sunset faded, I took my seat with Charis at the back of the stage as Zane spoke to the assembled crowd. With words as vibrant as paintings, he told the story of Maeve and Kiesha, of the cult of Anhamirak, of Maeve's seduction and of Leben's gifts to her and her people.

When he had finished, the doors opened in the back of the synkal. The children were escorted out to the market, where they would stay up late into the evening enjoying candies, games and magic.

The adults stayed, and when the palace guard doused all the torches in the room but those around the dais, everyone turned to Irene and Galen as they prepared to dance  - everyone except Charis.

I felt her tense, but when I looked to her, she was staring off the stage at someone in the darkness. Abruptly she stood, dragging me up with her. Zane heard the movement and his head whipped around toward us.

Yet every one of these actions was a second too late.

I was struck with a pain so fierce I could not even cry out; a brutal tearing constricted my lungs and sent ripples of crimson across my vision.

Charis collapsed beside me; I felt her weight on me, and I started to fall, but then Zane caught us both. In complete silence he carried us off the stage and into the relative safety of the hall.

Beyond that, my memories are scattered.

Zane's telling the guard to make sure Irene and Galen were safe, and to lock the doors. The assassin was inside.

Zane's white face as he leaned over me, telling me I would be fine. Begging me to stay awake with him.

Andreios's normally bronzed skin, turned a sickly ashen green. His turning to Zane and shaking his head.

"No." Zane's tone was flat, as if in shock. "That's impossible." Rei's ordering, "Someone get him out of here." The guards looking at each other, wondering who to obey. A figure being dragged away.

"You can go to sleep now," Irene said. She was still dressed in the glittering black and silver dress she had danced in. Her face was pale, and her hands were shaking. I slept, and when I woke next, the pain was less. There were bandages wrapped around my torso. Andreios was by my side.

"Thank the sky you're awake."

"I seem to keep being poisoned." The words took all my scant air, and when I tried to draw a deep breath, the pain struck.

"You'll be okay," Rei told me. "But it will take a while for you to heal. You've had a narrow escape  -  any higher, and the arrow would have hit your lung. Lower would have been just as bad."

"Arrow?"

"It was avian-style, but it must have been shot from a serpiente bow  -  the wound is deep. You've been out for almost a full day now... We weren't sure you were ever going to wake." On the last words his voice betrayed his fear.

Suddenly my fuzzy mind put together those last painful moments. My mouth was dry when I asked, "Charis?"

"It just barely nicked her arm, but..." He looked away. "She was unconscious before Zane carried the two of you to the hall, and she still hasn't woken. I don't think she will."

"Is Zane  -  " I stopped, needing to carefully draw more breath.

"Sleeping, right now," Rei answered. Wryly, he confessed, "The guard drugged him." Someone knocked quietly on the door. "Come in," Rei called. "She's awake." Irene Cobriana entered. Her steps dragged slightly, and her eyes were swollen as if she had been crying, but she held her head high.

"Irene, you should be lying down," Rei chastised lightly.

"I can't sleep anymore," she answered. "I came to see how Danica was doing." I tried a smile, but was not sure whether it worked. "Can't get rid of me... that easily."

"Andreios was supposed to call me as soon as you were awake, but I suspected he wouldn't."

Irene said, with what was supposed to be levity but did not quite make the mark. "If you think you can eat, there's some rather unattractive green broth you're supposed to try." I looked at Rei, who nodded solemnly. "It's very... healthy, I'm sure. The Keep and palace doctors worked together to concoct it. I suspect it will taste terrible." He was correct.

Lunch was another strange-colored liquid; this time it was gray. By dinnertime cooks had intervened, so it was a warm vegetable broth that the doctors had added their medicines to. It numbed the pain and allowed me to sleep.

I woke at odd hours, ate what was forced upon me and then slept again. I had no idea how much time passed. I did not know what day it was when I finally woke to find Zane by my bedside.

"Zane-"

"How do you feel?"

I paused to catalog my pains, which were few at that moment. There was a curious tingle around my injury, which I suspected would turn into a throbbing pain if I tried to move. "I don't know."

Zane smiled wistfully, but then the expression faded. "My mother is dead," he said without preamble. "She died last night." I tried to form words, but nothing was enough. "She tried to save me," I told him, knowing the words only spoke my own pain and could never heal his. "She tried to pull me out of the way."

"I know," Zane answered, his voice dead of emotion. "If you had both remained seated, the arrow probably would have hit you in the throat, and then her in the side. It would have killed you both.

"It doesn't make any sense, you know," Zane continued. "Even if they could have gotten into the synkal without being seen, and they didn't intend for you to be hit, no loyal avian would have risked your life that way. And no one loyal to the Cobriana would have used poison that wouldn't hurt you but would kill any of my family it nicked."

"Zane, are you all right?" Through the entire speech, his face had remained expressionless.

"I'm quite sure I'm not," he answered evenly. "But I'm alive, and uninjured, and  -  " I reached for his hand, and finally I heard his voice choke off, as his fragile shell cracked.

"Danica, I've never been this frightened in my life." The words spilled out in a flood of emotion. "The guard made the announcement about my mother this morning, and right now people are still in shock. I don't know how they'll respond when they wake up from it..." He took a deep breath, and then said on a rush of air, "I think it must have been one of my guard who made the shot, or at least who organized it."

"What?"

Instinctively I tried to sit up, and the pain returned abruptly, a spear driven into my gut, just below the left side of my ribcage.

"Careful, Danica," Zane cautioned, wincing.

"Tell me... about the guard." After that, he could get the doctors and they could drug me to sleep again, but first I wanted answers.

"It would have been nearly impossible for an avian to be in the crowd unnoticed. Weapons aren't allowed in the synkal anyway, and a serpiente bow is not easily concealed. Only one of my guards could have managed it."

"But the poison?" The question was short. Longer sentences took up more breath than I could get comfortably.

Zane shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe they stole it."

"How?" As I asked the question, I knew the answer. Adelina and Ailbhe both had been to the Keep. Either of them could have sneaked a bow into the synkal. Either of them would have known when the lights would go out. "But Charis... They wouldn't hurt her."

"There was bad blood between Adelina's family and mine for generations. My mother was the first to allow one of them into the guard, the first to trust them, and for that they were more than grateful. I can't imagine any of the guard being willing to hurt my mother, but I believe any one of them would before Adelina and Ailbhe." Zane shook his head, running fingers restlessly through his hair. "Andreios tells me they weren't allowed near the storeroom, anyway, and that the poison was too strong for them to have taken it from his people; it had to be mixed just for this occasion. Only someone in the Royal Flight would have had the access necessary to make the poison, but any of them would have used an avian bow. Besides, an avian who was willing to plot assassination would not have aimed at my mother; he would have gone for me." He sighed and leaned against the bed, his entire frame drooping with fatigue. "As I said, it doesn't make any sense."

My nurse, a shy little sparrow who had accompanied the Keep's doctor here, interrupted us at that point. "Milady, would you like supper?" she asked politely. I tried to decline, but Zane would not let me. He sat on the opposite side of the bed and amused us with quaint stories as I swallowed every drop of the foul concoction. I was almost asleep before the nurse had closed the door behind her.

Zane kissed my forehead lightly, as if I was a child. "Sleep, Danica."

Chapter 20

THOUGH MY KIND HEALS AT A RATE THAT would seem miraculous to any human doctor, when one is bedridden, nothing ever seems fast enough. My mother was wary about coming to the palace herself and insisted that she needed to stay at the Keep, but she sent sparrow messengers at least once a day demanding reports on my progress. She also made sure that I had the best avian doctors in the land tending to me.

Zane rarely left my side. Occasionally he would go out to the market while I slept and arrange for dancers, magicians and musicians to entertain me, but he was always beside me as I drifted into sleep and when I woke.

Clothed in deep violet, the serpiente color of mourning, Zane was no less elegant than he had ever been. However, there was something fragile about his movements, a fatigue no amount of sleep could cure.

Before his people, he put on a good front. Though somber, he still appeared strong and confident. I saw the mask every time someone came to visit me, and I watched it fall every time they left, as if it exhausted him to enact the play his position demanded. One evening I woke to a sound I could not quite place. When I finally recognized it, I felt a pain sharper than the arrow that had torn into me.

Zane was crying. His back was to me, and he was leaning against the wall with his head in his hands. His shoulders shook as he tried not to make a sound.

"Zane."

"I'm sorry." His voice was muffled.

"You're allowed to cry." He still didn't turn toward me. "Zane, please, come here." His chest rose and fell with each deep breath as he fought to gather his composure and put one foot in front of the other until he reached me.

I pushed myself up, ignoring the twinge in my side. My pain was tolerable; his was not.

"I didn't mean to wake you," he apologized again.

Zane, whose face was smudged with shadows and wet with tears, hadn't meant to wake me.

I wondered when last he had slept a night through.

I reached to brush the tears from his face; Zane turned toward the touch, closing his eyes.

Using the shelf beside my bed for support, I pulled myself to my feet. Standing was difficult, but manageable.

Zane caught my arm and steadied me. "Danica  -  "

I cut off his words with two fingertips against his lips, to which he planted a gossamer kiss.

Uncertain why, but with no thought of why not,

I drew his face down to mine. I tasted the salt from his tears as my lips touched briefly against his cheek. Again he closed his eyes, and I kissed each trembling eyelid before finally lowering my lips to his.

Just as tenderly as he had kissed my fingertips, Zane met my lips, unhurried and undemanding.

The kiss was called short by the pain that crept deeper into my side with every moment.

"We both need comfort, and rest," I said. "I can offer one, and the night will provide the other."

Ever so gently, Zane helped me to lie back down. He lay beside me. When I leaned against him, he sighed, kissing my hair, and  -  mindful of my injury  -  carefully wrapped an arm around my waist to hold me close.

I rested my cheek against his chest and fell asleep to the gentle rhythm of his breathing and the calm song of his heart. I did not wake again until someone knocked on the door.

"Danica?" a worried voice called.

Zane answered for me, "One minute." He kissed my forehead chastely and then seemed discontented with that and so lowered his lips to mine for a real kiss  -  one I saw no reason to withhold.

He climbed carefully out of the bed and opened the door for my doctor, an old crow named Betsy, who had been around the Keep since my great-grandmother Caylan's childhood.

"How are you feeling today?" she asked.

I had slept deeply and naturally for the first time in weeks, which made me answer,

"Quite well."

"Very good, very good," Betsy answered. "Your mother will be pleased that I finally have something positive to tell her."

The doctor left instructions that I could start on more solid food in a few days, and that I should try to stand up and walk a bit whenever I felt strong enough.

"How do you feel?" I asked Zane once we were alone again.

"I don't know." He stopped and shook his head. "My father died when I was a child. I've lost three brothers and a sister since then, and I mourned for each of them. When Gregory died, I decided he would be the last. I was so certain that if I tried, I could keep what was left of my family safe..." He did not need to say more. I held out a hand to him and he sat beside me.

"I forgot about her, Danica," he confided, and I heard in his voice that this above all was bothering him. "When I pulled the two of you off the stage, there was so much blood on you, and the injury looked so bad... I didn't even glance at my mother, didn't..." He trailed off again.

I leaned against him, lending my warmth as I spoke. "She was unconscious almost instantly  -  I felt her fall, Zane," I explained. "There was nothing you could have done."

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