Hawksong Page 4

Andreios had caught my arm. With a glare at the serpiente prince, Rei escorted me to my seat, blocking Zane from my sight.

We're here to try to make peace with that? I thought frantically. My hands were cold, my face still hot. If he could affect me that strongly from across the room, without saying a word, how would I ever dare to approach him civilly?

The Mistari Disa stood and held up her hands for silence among her own people. The hush dragged my attention away from the serpiente leaders and back to the Mistari queen.

"I already know that this isn't going to be easy," the Disa began. "But so long as both of you are willing to make an effort, there is always a chance for peace." There was some grumbling between the serpiente guards, but Zane and Irene both shot them searing looks, and they quieted.

The Disa spoke first to the serpiente. "Charis, you are Naga, are you not?" Charis Cobriana nodded, but then answered aloud, "I am, but my Diente is dead. Zane hasn't taken the throne yet, but you should address him as our leader."

"Zane, have you not taken a mate?"

Zane raised fiery eyes to the Mistari Disa. "Taking a mate in the middle of this war would be giving a death sentence to a woman in return for her love. I've learned from experience that even a woman with child is not safe from the killing, not when she's carrying a cobra's blood."

The Disa took a breath, nodded and then turned to my mother. "And among your people, Nacola, whom should I address as your leader?"

"My daughter," my mother answered. "Danica Shardae. She will soon be queen."

"How soon?" the Disa asked gently, and my head lowered. My mother had prepared me to take the throne, but I was still uneasy about the prospect.

My mother blinked and answered hesitantly, "My daughter has no alistair. The one she was raised with was killed in this war, and since Shardae is now old enough, I want her to choose her own. When I said soon, I simply meant..." She paused, then gathered her thoughts and answered honestly, "I am tired of this war, tired of being queen. My daughter still has faith, and if anyone is strong enough to lead us to peace, it is her. She will be appointed Tuuli Thea on her next birthday."

The Disa nodded again. "Danica, Zane, both of you have come here, asking for peace. Both of your families are willing to follow you. Why do you need our help?" Zane spoke first. "Even if every one of us wants peace, our people would rather fight than be taken by surprise. Among my own guards," he said, glancing at his blond companion, "there is strong doubt as to how far we can trust the avians, and among many of my people there is even speculation as to why I would want to make peace." The Disa looked to me next, and I could only agree with Zane. "We were barely able to control our soldiers these last two weeks. They don't believe the serpiente can be trusted, and unless we either give them permission to fight again, or we find some way to convince them that the Cobriana family and their people really want peace, my mother and I won't have the power to keep them from going against us." The Disa sighed and looked at her husband. They conferred quietly for a few minutes, and then it was the Dio who spoke to us.

"You are both saying that your people doubt your sincerity, and the other side's sincerity," the Dio paraphrased. "You two are their leaders, and if you can set the example and show them how much you are willing to give for this peace, they will follow." He paused and then looked at me. "The question then is, how much are you willing to give?"

I thought about all the battlefields, all the dead men and women I had seen, all the dying children and fathers and mothers I had held and sung to. I thought about my dead alistair, Vasili, about my brother, Xavier, and about Gregory Cobriana begging me to stop the pain.

And I answered, "Anything."

A breath later, Zane echoed my response with, "Everything." The Disa took over again. "When you have hatred, you need to start with the heart to mend it. Similarly, when you have a rift between peoples as great as you have, the only way to bridge the gap is to start at the center."

I glanced at Zane, wondering if he under stood the Disa's advice better than I did. His eyes were narrowed slightly, as if he had an idea where this was going but didn't much like it.

"You came for our advice. All I can send you away with is this: You can only sew shut a rip by making the two sides one again. Danica Shardae, Zane Cobriana, you said you would give up anything, everything, to stop the war." She looked at me, at Zane, and then she spoke to both of us. "Never ask your people to do something you do not have the courage, or the determination, to do. If you want peace, start between the two of you."

The Disa spoke to the entire hall as she concluded, "The best advice I can offer is this: Tie the two royal families. Make the two sides into one. If you are willing to trust each other, and willing to put aside your anger and your hatred, then Zane Cobriana, take Danica Shardae as your mate. Danica Shardae, have Zane Cobriana as your alistair." Andreios was the first to jump to his feet to protest, though the female guard shouted out not a moment after. Even my mother's voice rose, at the same time that Charis Cobriana stood. Zane's voice climbed above the others, saying, "I think that's an absurd idea," while my own objections were frozen in my throat.

Again the Disa held up her hands for silence, and one of the other Mistari touched Charis's arm and told her to sit. Another guard was doing the same to Andreios. The Disa's voice was soft, almost sad, as she asked, "If you, the leaders of your people, are unwilling to make amends, then how can you expect your warriors to do so?" More loudly, she told the hall, "Stay here for the night, think on my words  -  " Zane's voice interrupted. "Wait, please  -  "

"Dismissed, all of you," the Disa commanded. "You may return tomorrow at sunset if you wish to do so. For now, seek your beds, rest and think on my words." Just like that, we were barred from the hall. The Disa and Dio left their dais as we were ushered out by Mistari guards and escorted to the rooms in which we would be staying. A young Mistari girl brought water to wash with, as well as an assortment of cheeses, fruit and warm, freshly baked brown bread. I was grateful that the Mistari had thought not to serve meat, since like most of my kind I avoided it.

Rei stopped in to check on me once, and I had to assure him repeatedly that I would be fine before he calmed down.

He paused at the doorway and then turned back to me and apologized. "Dani, I'm sorry I lost my temper in the hall today. You know I care about you. I always have. The thought of that snake coming anywhere near you..." He trailed off and looked away from me as if he couldn't meet my eyes. "I should go. Good night."

"Good night, Rei," I answered with a bit of a sigh.

Then he was gone, and I was alone again, with only the flickering orange light of a solitary candle for company.

I lay back on the soft fur sleeping pallet and watched the light dance on the ceiling as I thought.

Never ask your people to do something you do not have the courage, or the determination, to do. If you want peace, start between the two of you. How could the Disa expect us to suddenly turn from enemies to a pair bond? She couldn't understand. The Mistari had never known the intense bloodshed and hatred our two kinds had known.

But still, there was a reason why the Disa was considered wise, a reason why warring people had come to her lands for hundreds of years when they sought peace. Never before had anyone managed to get leaders of both sides of this war together. If that was possible... maybe Eleanor was right  -  maybe anything was possible.

Chapter 5

A CHILL DOWN MY SPINE AND A FLICKER OF darkness in the corner of my vision announced his presence, even before the figure emerged from the shadows. Still wearing black snakeskin pants and a black shirt that I now recognized as silk, the cobra terrified me just by being in the room. Pure primal instinct forced me to my feet. The back of my neck tingled, gold eyes dilated to catch every hint of light and every inch of skin was suddenly hypersensitive. My heartbeat had jumped instantly, until I could hear it as a near buzz in my ears.

"What do you want?" I asked, choking back a cry for my guards. Zane Cobriana would not be stupid enough to kill me in Mistari lands.

Would he?

I could not read his expression as he collapsed gracefully onto one of the large pillows that lined the room. "I decided that you and I should talk," he stated simply, his voice no louder than my own. "Sit down, Danica. I'm not going to ravage or bite you or whatever it is you're thinking."

I forced myself to sit, my legs folded under me in the fine linen slacks I had yet to replace with nightclothes. My heartbeat had slowed slightly, but I could still feel the pulse in my temple and at my wrists. "Talk?"

"We were thrown out of the Mistari hall quite abruptly," he explained, "and in all likelihood the same will happen tomorrow unless we have some discussion prior."

"Continue," I said slowly, trying to keep the tremor from my voice.

"Did you know there are four guards outside your door, Danica?" Zane inquired. My expression must have appeared surprised, because he continued, "I thought not. The Mistari added their own people to yours. They're all incompetent really, or I wouldn't be here, but it would have been tricky to catch you alone tomorrow. And since you're the only one in your group who has demonstrated any sense, you seemed the one to talk to."

"It's late, Zane, and I am very tired," I sighed, my unease and fatigue joining to make me impatient. "What is it you want to talk about?"

"About life," Zane replied lightly. Before I could speak, he went on, "And about death. About the fact that my people mean more to me than anything else, and I would do almost anything to end this foolish war. I want to talk about the world, and most specifically, about you."

It took me two tries to ask, "Me?"

Zane sighed heavily. "Of course you. If the Mistari Disa's proposal is even to be considered, I would like to know what I would be getting myself into."

"I believe you already expressed your opinion on that subject," I said dryly, falling back on the cool, distant tone of a monarch. I tried not to be a frosty queen to my people and my friends, but when nothing else worked, I knew enough to use that composure as a shell.

"And I believe my first reaction is probably still correct," Zane agreed, as if he had accepted a compliment. "It is an absurd idea, but that is no doubt why it has never been tried. I'm not saying I'll go along with it," he said hastily, before continuing, "but it does have some potential."

There were no words to express my emotions in that moment, though I am sure they bordered between pure terror and helpless fascination.

The Disa's suggestion was impossible. It would never happen. But still... "And what exactly do you think you are 'getting yourself into'?" I inquired distastefully. Before this conversation went any further, I thought it best to have some idea of where Zane intended it to go, since he had surely come here with some hidden purpose. Again his gaze flickered down my form. "If it was just your body, Danica, I would agree very quickly," he stated calmly, and despite my fine upbringing, I was not ignorant enough to keep a blush from my face. He continued, sounding slightly resigned, "But one doesn't chose a life's partner for form, and the simple fact is that your mind comes as part of the deal  -  and that is a part of you that, despite years of musing over it, I have yet to fathom."

Years?

I did not care for the sound of his phrasing.

"I thought I understood you, once," he continued. "Beautiful and arrogant and blind to suffering. And I had almost learned to hate you. But then I heard that the pristine Danica Shardae had knelt in the blood and filth of the battlefield and held my brother's hand and sung to him so he would not die alone. It made me think that perhaps you might have a heart after all."

I jumped when he reached toward me, belatedly recognizing the movement as something casual, a mere gesture while he spoke. His hand froze, as if he had not even realized he had moved until I reacted, and then it balled into a fist. Zane was on his feet instantly. "Damn it, Danica!" he hissed, his voice soft but full of impatience. "I'm not going to hurt you."

I stood as soon as I felt Zane's temper, stepping back from the serpiente. Fear made my voice venomous as I responded, "Forgive me if I find it difficult to completely trust the man who has had so many of my kind killed."

"If I wanted to hurt you, I would have done it already," Zane replied bluntly. "I didn't have the slightest bit of difficulty slipping past your guards. Your avian heart beats almost a hundred times a minute at rest. Poison from a cobra's bite would reach your brain within seconds, so quickly you would never have a chance to cry out." His red eyes flashed with challenge, daring me to contradict him. "Trust me, little avian, when I say that if I wanted you dead, you would have been dead long ago. I wouldn't have bothered to set up this whole meeting with the Mistari. I would have broken into your room in the dark of night and smothered you with that Chinese silk pillow that you keep on top of the trunk at the foot of your bed."

"What?"

My voice was very faint, with shock this time instead of fear.

I knew that he was only pretending to misunderstand when he said, elaborating, "You know the one I mean  -  gold and red silk, with flying black and silver dragons. Beautiful, obviously handcrafted  -  "

"Who told you about it?" I demanded, my fear jelling with anger to form a wellpracticed surface of calm. Zane raised an eyebrow as he collapsed back onto the cushion on the floor. "About the silk pillow? Or about the oaken chest it sits on?" He paused, raising his red gaze to meet mine, and I held it without wavering. "Or maybe about the white woolen blanket you sleep with in colder weather, which is as soft as new down, and the heavy tapestry that hangs across the open balcony doors in good weather."

Prev Next