Hawksong Page 3

Irene also looked up at whoever had made the sound, and her voice rose with anger as she argued, "I have lost my father to this war. Two uncles. Three brothers. A few years ago, I lost a sister and a niece at the same time when some avian soldier put a knife into her belly and killed both her and the child she was carrying. My mother is a good woman, but she is only Naga, and the people will not follow someone who is only Cobriana by name. They need their Diente. And Zane is the last true heir to that title." Her voice quieted again.

"Excuse me if we don't completely trust you, Irene," my mother said simply. "But your kind has not been known to uphold its word in the past."

Irene lowered her head, and I could tell she was trying to speak around her anger.

"Gregory Cobriana died two nights ago," she answered quietly. She looked at me as she said the words. "He was only seventeen, and now he is simply dead. I came here, without weapons, with the hope that someone might listen. Zane wanted to come himself, but my mother argued that you would sooner put a knife in his back than listen to anything he had to say. And do you know what he replied? He said, 'Let them. If they do, someone might finally be satisfied that they've won this war, and then maybe it will end.' "

I barely managed to hold my tongue in response to that claim. Zane Cobriana was what the serpiente called an Arami, the prince first in line to the throne. Now that his father was dead, he was all but king. It was hard for me to imagine the leader of the serpiente saying anything remotely tolerable, much less blatantly self-sacrificing. Anyone who had spent enough time in the court had heard about the exploits of Zane Cobriana. In battle, it was said, he fought with single-minded fury, and a speed and grace no avian could match. He could catch the eye of his opponent, and that warrior would drag his knife across his own throat in a killing blow. He fought beside his people in battle and had never been wounded. Whispered rumor attributed his power to black magic and demons.

"And what exactly is... Zane... proposing?" my mother asked, hesitating for a fraction of a second before she spoke the name, as if worried the word alone would soil the Hawk's Keep.

"A truce," Irene answered instantly. "Zane, my mother and I would like to meet with you, your heir, and whatever others you think necessary."

"And just where is this meeting to take place?" my mother asked skeptically.

"Before the Mistari Disa," Irene answered softly. She took a breath and then explained,

"The serpiente have been fighting so long, their only reason for continuing now is to avenge the loss of so many of their kin to avian fighters. They don't trust the avians, and I think it would take quite a show of good faith from your people to convince ours that the Tuuli Thea is as honest in her desire to stop the fighting as their Naga and Arami are."

I bit my tongue to keep from demanding just what kind of "show of good faith" Irene was suggesting. When she spoke, the Tuuli Thea said much the same. "I take it Zane sent you as a show of faith from your side," my mother said. "What is he asking in return?"

Irene shook her head. "Only that you agree to meet with us on peaceful lands before the Mistari Disa. We would like to appeal to her for support of the peace talks, and whatever is involved in those."

My mother looked at me. "Shardae?"

I started to object instantly... but then I remembered Gregory Cobriana's blood on my hands. I remembered the battlefields, the reek and the wail of war. I remembered my own alistair, Vasili, who had once been promised as my husband. And my own brother, who had been no older than the enemy he had taken with him into death. So my words when I answered my mother were soft, but not without emotion. "I do not trust them, Mother, but if there is any chance that they might be honest, that Zane Cobriana might want peace..." I took a breath, because the very thought that Zane would ever waste a breath for peace was unnerving. "Then I believe we should take it." More quietly, I added, "You know that I would do anything within my power to stop this war."

My mother nodded. "Andreios, your thoughts?"

The leader of the royal guard paused, looking at Irene. "I don't like it, but Mistari lands are neutral territory. Even a cobra would be mad to try to ambush us there; the Mistari would tear the serpents apart."

"Very well, then." The Tuuli Thea gestured for Irene to stand and held up a hand to silence the guards' protests. "Irene, please relay the message to your... prince that we would be willing to meet him."

"Thank you, Nacola," Irene said warmly, informally enough that I saw a guard wince. She looked directly at me as she added, "Zane asked me to convey our willingness to meet any day, any time, as soon as is possible. Please speak a date, and I will tell my brother."

Again, my mother conferred briefly with Andreios, and then she answered, "In a fortnight, on the first showing of the moon. It will take that long for us to organize our people."

If the serpiente left the instant Irene returned to the palace and were willing to ride their horses to exhaustion, their party would probably make the deadline. The serpiente would not have time to plan a sneak attack before the meeting.

Irene curtsied, her face showing no annoyance at the rush my mother was pressing her people with. "Thank you, Nacola, Danica. My best wishes go with you both until then."

Chapter 4

MY INSIDES COILED IN EXPECTATION OF disaster as I made last-minute preparations for our trip to Mistari lands. I knew the tigers would not allow anyone to bring warfare to their land, but I could not help fearing that this was a trap  -  just like the one that had taken my father from me. He had received a forged missive from my aunt, who lived outside the Keep, saying that she was dying and wanted her brother by her side. The ambush had taken them both from me in the same day. Andreios had spent the two weeks all but avoiding me so he would not have to face another interrogation about the Keep's defenses, though besides small, unplanned skirmishes caused by chance meetings of our two kinds, there had been no battles since Irene Cobriana's visit.

It was only a matter of time.

"Milady? A problem." I turned, trying not to glare at the sparrow who delivered the message.

"Can it wait? We need to leave."

The sparrow shook her head. "The Tuuli Thea told me only that you need to speak to the Ravens before you leave for the Mistari lands."

Flanked by Andreios and five of his soldiers, I landed in the yard where the Ravens trained, a short flight from the Hawk's Keep.

The guilty looks a few of them tried to hide at my arrival did not bode well. The commander, a woman named Karashan, who seemed more sinew than muscle and whose arms bore many scars from her lifelong profession, approached me.

"Lady Shardae, to what do we owe this honor?"

"I was told there was some talk among your soldiers that I should be aware of," I answered honestly.

Karashan did not look away from my gaze, but she hesitated. "Well, milady  -  "

"Milady, thank the sky you're here," one of the younger soldiers said, giving a hasty bow before he began. "With all respect to my commander, the orders we've been given are mad-"

I could not hear the rest of his words over the murmur that started then. I held up a hand, shaking my head. "Your orders are to hold off, to defend the Keep if it is attacked but not to instigate anything. Correct?" I asked once the chaos had died down. The commander answered, "Yes, milady. But surely there is some mistake? We'll be sitting here like lame turkeys when the serpiente attack." I heard one of Rei's people fidget behind me.

My voice was calm, but my eyes were cold as I answered, "We are going to a meeting to discuss peace, Karashan."

The raven shook her head. "I mean no disrespect, milady, but I have been a soldier for seventy years. Serpents do not know the meaning of peace  -  or honor. If we do not attack soon and flush out whatever they have planned, you can be sure we will find snakes in our own beds."

I resisted the urge to glance at Rei in a plea for assistance. This had to come from me alone.

"Karashan, you have your orders. They come from the Tuuli Thea and have been repeated by her heir. Do you plan to obey them?"

She hesitated.

"Do I need to remove you from your position to ensure you will not do anything foolish while my family is in Mistari lands?"

"No, milady," she finally answered, voice soft. "I will not give the order to attack. But, milady... if you do not let them move soon, my flight might not wait for my word. They are restless."

I nodded. "I trust you to keep them under control, Karashan. And if you cannot, I trust you to bring word to my mother or me before they take action. Understood?"

"Yes, milady."

I returned to the Keep feeling like a stone plummeting toward I knew not what. I ran my hands through my hair, trying not to look flustered in front of the Royal Flight.

"Shardae?"

I turned to see Karl, one of the few members of the Royal Flight who was my age, watching me with worried eyes. "Yes, Karl?"

"I will obey your orders as always, milady," he assured me, "but what if Karashan is right? You yourself agreed to go to the Mistari camps because there was a slim chance the serpiente might be sincere  -  so you, too, must know they probably are not. Isn't this too great a risk?"

I shook my head. "If they attack, we will defend ourselves as we have after every serpiente plot in the past. But if they don't, then maybe we can find a way to make peace. Isn't the possibility of your children never having to fight worth the risk?" Karl nodded. "My trust is with you, milady."

I hoped I was worthy of it.

Before we could speak more on the subject, we were approached by the Mistari's avian representative, Mikkal, who had arrived earlier in the day to guide us into the foreign territory. "Are you ready to go, Lady Shardae?"

I sighed lightly, but nodded. "My mother?"

"She is waiting downstairs for you," he answered.

We joined the rest of our group: my mother, Andreios and two others from the Royal Flight. The Mistari Disa and Dio, their queen and king, had limited our number to five. We had been assured that the serpiente would bring the same. Shortly we were off to Mistari lands, with Mikkal in the lead.

The journey was not an easy one, even though my form was one of the strongest an avian could boast. The young goshawk was an extraordinary flier, and he set a hard pace. Once we had crossed the water and were over the sweltering Mistari lands, the trip was decidedly unpleasant.

The central city of the Mistari, if it could be called such, was surrounded by a natural ring of high stones. Inside those walls, the tigers of the Mistari tribes slept during the hottest hours of the day. Though the group had only been in this area for forty or fifty years, since they had been driven out of Asia by the ever-spreading human population, they had already crafted sturdy walls where the granite mounds were too widely spaced or not high enough for their liking. Built into these walls and stones were the structures where the Mistari lived and slept, some grand and brightly decorated, and some little more than tents held aloft by simple stone piles.

In the center of the ring, one of the giant boulders had been carefully hollowed out and decorated with carvings of each Mistari leader, including the Mistari Disa and Dio. This was their simple palace  -  the reception hall, where we would meet with the serpiente before the king and queen of these people, and chambers where the royal family slept. Our group was instantly surrounded when we landed and shifted into human form, but the natives relaxed when they recognized us. "The Disa and Dio are waiting inside the reception hall," a tigress told us. "The others are already there." We were hustled through the tall grasses and toward the grand stone structure that was the heart of the Mistari territories.

Most of the Mistari stopped outside, but the tigress who had greeted us initially gently pushed aside the ornate silk weavings that hung in the doorway, and invited us into the hall.

The hall was more dimly lit than outside, but carefully cut windows shrouded with white silk let in enough light to show the brilliance of the Mistari palace. The floor was black stone, polished until it shone, and the smooth granite walls were decorated with an intricate mural of the African Serengeti. Brightly colored pillows formed seats on the floor, several of which were taken by the royal family's servants. Slightly raised on a red and black granite dais sat the Mistari Disa and Dio.

All of those individuals quickly lost my interest. Within moments my attention was locked on another group, whose members were seated on the opposite side of the hall from our party.

Irene Cobriana smiled wryly when I glanced at her, but already my gaze had moved on. Another woman, wearing dark burgundy, sat nearby. Her hair tumbled to her waist, a waterfall of onyx strands, and as she turned to look my way, I avoided her startling sapphire eyes. Charis Cobriana, Naga of the serpiente. The python might not have a cobra's power, but it was never a good idea to meet a serpent's gaze. There were three others who sat with them, one female and two male. The first man was lightly built, with ash-brown hair cut short. The woman was slender, with blond hair that was tied at the nape of her neck before falling silkily down her back. They had the casual poise and obvious attention of guards. The male guard lingered near Irene, and the female near the man, who could be none other than the Arami of the serpiente. Zane Cobriana lounged on a cushion, his back resting against the wall, one leg bent and the other straight. The iridescent shimmer of his black slacks led me to wonder which of his kind he had skinned. His shoulders were broader than those of a common avian man, and in the position in which he sat, the black material of his shirt was pulled taut across his chest. On his left hand I could see the onyx signet ring. For a moment he was absolutely still, then he looked up and unerringly caught my gaze. Twin pools of fire, a shade of red brighter than Irene's, held me tight. Time seemed to freeze for an eternity. Then his eyes released mine and flickered down my body, a quick scan that brought heat to my face.

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