Hawksong Page 20

"I forgot about her," he argued.

"You were scared."

As I've been scared before,

I added silently.

So scared I didn't know what to think or do.

"You did all you could."

We passed a while in companionable silence, until Zane whispered finally, "You are so patient with me."

Deciding there was a time to be somber and there was a time to lighten the mood, I responded, "I have to be... I can't walk out without your help."

Chapter 21

OVER THE NEXT WEEK I GRADUALLY gained strength, and finally I could take short walks with Zane to the market. I hated to return to my room so early, and delayed as much as possible, until Zane frequently ended up carrying me much of the way back. If it bothered him, he never complained. When I was tired, he would curl up with me in bed no matter the hour and we would rest together.

I remembered once comparing him to Vasili in my mind, long ago when he had spoken to me in my room in the Keep, but now I could barely see the resemblance. Zane was warm where Vasili had been cool, offering laughter where Vasili would have given a silent smile.

Vasili and I had been betrothed when I was an infant and he was a child of three. In memory, I looked at him through a child's eyes. I loved him  -  as a father, as a brother, as a mentor.

These thoughts chased themselves through my mind as Zane and I lingered in the serpiente market longer than usual to watch A'isha perform the sakkri. The dance was even more ancient than the sacred Namir-da. According to myth, it had originated in the cult of Anhamirak, where it had been used to summon spirits. The haunting music and elaborate, complex movements almost made it seem like A'isha must have spectral partners dancing with her.

After it was over, I spotted white-blond hair moving through the crowd. Adelina. She approached us timidly, waiting as we both turned to acknowledge her.

"My Naga Danica," she greeted me. I had never heard her address me by title before.

"May I speak to you alone for a moment, please?" The guard's expression was anxious enough to put me on edge.

I glanced at Zane, who shrugged slightly. "I can wait here for you. But this is already longer than you've been walking since you were hurt; try not to linger too long."

"I'll be right back."

Adelina led me to a slightly less crowded section of the market. We were by no means "alone." but we bad as much privacy as we would find out here.

"I owe you an apology, milady." Her gaze flickered toward Zane. "After the Mistari made their suggestion, I was the one who protested loudest and longest. More than anything, I wanted Zane happy, and I hated that he would give up that happiness for peace." She sighed, shaking her head, obviously having trouble finding the words she needed. "You two had a rocky start, so I suppose it's natural you would seek comfort with someone you are more familiar with."

She hesitated, and I remembered seeing her with Zane and hearing her plead with him as he refused to go against his vows.

I was about to speak, but Adelina continued. "I still hated you for it, when you went to your Rei and Zane wouldn't come to me." I tried to argue and tell her the truth about a scene that must have been eating away at her since she had seen it, but she wouldn't let me. "What's done is done. I've never seen Zane look at a woman like he looks at you now... not even me." Her voice held more than a trace of longing as she said the words.

"Oh yes, I'm jealous. Perhaps if I were one of your avian guards, I could pretend otherwise, but I don't have their reserve. And... you make him happy. So I feel that I should apologize." She added softly, "For more than you know."

"You're... forgiven," I answered, finally finding the words to speak.

"You'll be happy to know that I'm retiring from the guard tomorrow," Adelina added. "It doesn't seem appropriate for me to stay. I just  -  " Her voice broke off in pain.

"Good night, Danica," she whispered before turning away. I bid her good night, feeling more than a little dazed, and went back to find Zane. I did not repeat Adelina's words to him as we returned to our room; they were personal, and I could not consider telling them to Zane until I understood them myself. You make him happy.

I hoped so.

We lay down together again, side by side. He trailed his fingers through my hair, hesitating for just a moment as they passed between the golden feathers hidden there.

"I don't think I'll ever get used to these," Zane commented, "but they don't bother me nearly so much as they used to."

I smiled, snuggling closer. "Maybe someday I'll take you flying." I imagined growing my Demi-form's wings and lifting Zane into the air.

"As soon as you let A'isha teach you to dance the Namir-da," he challenged. "Until then, my feet will remain firmly on the ground."

Sweetly, I agreed, "Deal." I raised my head, and Zane obligingly met my lips with his own.

"You are too tempting," he whispered.

He wrapped one arm around my waist to hold me close as his other hand skimmed down my side, a light caress that ended at my mid-thigh.

We were at the point where one of us had always backed off before, but I didn't want this to end, not yet.

Zane's hand slid down to my knee, gently moving me so I leaned toward his body. I shifted to accommodate the new position, and with the movement came a spark of pain. The sensation was over instantly, but Zane felt me tense, and thankfully recognized the reason. He sighed, drawing back.

"Don't you dare leave me now."

"You're still healing; I don't want to hurt you." His expression told me that he couldn't believe he was the one saying no this time.

"You won't."

Do you trust him?

When had we reached the point where the answer to Rei's question had become yes without hesitation? When Zane had sat by my bedside for hours while I was drifting in and out of consciousness? When he had arranged for me to be visited by entertainers and friends, or had carried me home when I was too tired to walk? Or when I had first seen him cry and had wanted nothing but to comfort him?

I do not know how, yet somehow, impossibly, we are here.

Zane hesitated, looking at me with temptation and worry in his eyes. The decision was yet unmade when someone pounded on the door, the raps too sharp to be ignored. Eleanor Lyssia's voice drifted through the door. "Danica, Zane, Rei told me to get you." Zane swore, pushing himself up, and helped me to my feet. He cast one last lingering look back at the bed before turning toward the door.

Anxiety was written on Eleanor's face. She led us to the main hall, where Andreios met us outside the doors. He had a cut down his left cheek and another one across his ribs. His expression was drawn but not frightened. Still, it was enough to make me queasy with worry.

He nodded toward the closed door of the hall. ""We've found our assassins," he said.

"Erica and Ailbhe are holding them."

It took a moment for the statement to register. My first thoughts were of Ailbhe and Adelina's treatment of me when I had first entered serpiente land, and of Erica's zealousness against the serpiente. It seemed likely we might end up with only pieces of the assassins left.

I did not have enough time to wonder how they had been caught or who they were before Rei shook his head with a grimace and turned to

Zane. "One of them is the guard who shot Charis and Danica..." He hesitated. "Zane, it's Adelina."

Zane's face whitened; my gut lurched as I considered Adelina's last words to me in a new light.

It doesn't seem appropriate anymore.

"She wouldn't have hurt my mother," Zane whispered desperately. He pushed past Rei, and then paused before opening the door, bracing himself. ""Who is the other?"

"Karl." Now I understood Rei's disgust. He had personally assured me of Karl's loyalty, only to find that the guard had nearly gotten me killed. "Both have confessed. The Royal Flight and palace guard can deal with them, if you wish." Zane shook his head. "I'll speak to them. Danica?"

I nodded. Unpleasant as it would be, it seemed right that I should face my people  -

even if only to sentence them.

Rei nodded, and I could tell he agreed with our decisions. He opened the door to the hall for us.

Both assassins' hands were bound behind their backs. Erica was holding Karl's wrists, and Ailbhe held Adelina. The guards' expressions were carefully blank as they detained their own people  -  and, in Ailbhe's case, his own sister.

"She wasn't supposed to hurt you," Karl instantly protested, before anyone bid him to speak.

"Shut up; they don't care," Adelina responded briskly. She raised her gaze to Zane's, and then looked at me.

Now Karl pleaded with Rei. "I was trying to protect my Tuuli Thea. I knew they couldn't be trusted  -  "

"You're guilty of treason," Adelina once again interrupted. "No one cares why."

"I care," Zane disagreed. His voice held a wintry chill, which did not quite manage to cover his pain. "I care why you killed my mother, and tried to kill my mate."

"It wasn't supposed to be poisoned."

Adelina snapped, glaring at Karl. "He gave me the bolt. An avian bolt, so they would be blamed..." Now her gaze turned to me, and it was all I could do not to step back. "The poison was supposed to be weak, just enough to look like someone was trying to harm Charis  -  without actually doing it."

"And you weren't supposed to hit my Tuuli Thea," Karl argued, yelling to be heard over Adelina. "You nearly killed her  -  "

"I was trying to!" Adelina shouted back. "It was only a mistake I didn't." Her voice softened as she continued. "I saw my Diente, the man I

loved, honoring his vows no matter how cold and miserable they left him  -  "

"Would someone just kill her and get it over with?" Karl asked, his calm voice causing Adelina to turn to him.

"I should have skinned you when I first found you in the palace," she retorted. "You were stupid enough to slice open your own Naga. I should have known you were too stupid to  -  "

"I was stupid to think a snake would keep her word!" Karl answered. "You lied to your own king. Why did I think you wouldn't lie to me?"

"Enough!" Both quieted abruptly at Zane's shout. "Karl, you were the one who cut Danica?"

The guard answered bluntly, "Trying to kill you, sir." I had to turn my gaze away, rather than face the young guard's poise.

Zane turned next to Adelina. "You lied to me about Karl."

"Yes... sir."

"You tried to kill my mate in the synkal, and in the process killed my mother."

"The poison wasn't supposed to be  -  "

He held up a hand to silence her. "Yes or no, Adelina?" She swallowed hard. "Yes. And I'm aware that it's a death sentence. Accident or not, I would impose the sentence upon myself for your mother's death. I only wanted to make sure he"  -  she nodded at Karl  -  "was also caught, before he could further defend his Naga by trying to kill you again."

Zane swallowed thickly. "Andreios, can you and Erica see that these two are kept under control until they can be dealt with?"

Rei nodded.

"Good." Zane closed his eyes, drawing a deep breath, and suddenly the vulnerability in his expression was obvious. "Ailbhe, you may be dismissed. You don't need to be involved in this."

I saw the moment of hesitation in every tense line of the white viper's body before he shook his head sharply. "Thank you, sir, but I'll stay. If I can't do my duty now, I have no place in your guard."

Zane nodded gravely. Rei, Erica and Ailbhe escorted the two traitors out. As soon as they were gone, Zane collapsed against the wall. "I should have known. Gods... I trusted her with your life..." He pulled me closer, until I was resting against him. "You could have been killed." He kissed the top of my head. I lifted my face to meet the kiss, wanting the comfort of his touch as much as I was willing to provide the comfort of mine. The contact was sweet and soft, yet at the same time desperate.

It was Zane who pulled away first. "Danica, I

think..." He trailed off and kissed me again, this time briefly, just the barest touch of lips to lips. "I love you."

From a man who frequently uttered eloquent speeches, the tentative declaration was not the most flattering of compliments  -  especially when every movement he made and look he cast my way had shown the truth long before now.

But coming from the serpent who had once informed me that he did not love me and did not think he ever could, whose cool, polished words could cut to the bone and freeze the Earth's molten blood  -  whose eyes right now were just a bit dazed, and whose expression was as open and startled as I had ever seen it  -  the words were more than enough.

"I know," I answered. Then, soft but certain, I answered, "I love you, too." His smile matched mine and said the same as mine:

I know.

My prayer is simple, my dear one, my dear one. May you never need understand. My prayer is for peacetime, my child, my child.

Live it well, and this life can be grand.