Hawksong Page 5

My voice was lodged in my throat. "How..."

"I've been there," he answered simply. "I've seen it. The Hawk's Keep isn't the easiest place in the world to sneak into, but I have a talent for such things. I nearly got myself caught the first time, trying to figure out how to get to the first floor, but luckily avian guards don't often look up for an enemy. From there, there are servant staircases. You don't even keep your door locked, Danica."

I will now.

Finally he lowered his gaze, and I let out the breath I had been holding. "You're making this up." It wasn't possible he could have gotten by the Royal Flight. And no matter what time of the night, someone would have seen him in the halls.

"You really think so?" Zane sounded amused. "The first time I saw you, Danica, I was sixteen. I had just lost the first of my brothers in an avian attack. Someone  -  I don't remember who  -  told me you had just turned fifteen. For your birthday, my brother died." Despite the words, his voice remained calm, tired. "I rode a horse to the old Desmodus paths, and then cut through the woods. It was an hour or so after midnight when I found myself at your bedside. I meant to kill you."

"And why didn't you?"

"Sit down, Danica," Zane requested, in almost a sigh. "Do you have even the faintest idea how beautiful you are?" When I did not respond, he closed his eyes, as if picturing a long-ago memory. "You were fifteen. Only a year younger than I was. You were wearing white lambskin pants, and a blouse made of fur-lined cotton. I assumed you had fallen asleep before preparing for bed." He shook his head, opening his eyes. "I remember thinking you were as striking as the chaste Greek goddess of the hunt. I was young. And I wasn't a killer  -  not then, anyway. I had never killed before, and I couldn't start by destroying something so exquisite. I reached out to touch your cheek." I was trapped in his story, trapped in the cool voice and hypnotic eyes. As Zane spoke, he reached out, brushing fingertips over the soft skin of my cheek. His hands were cool but not cold, the touch as light as a snowflake's kiss. Even the contact of skin on skin, so unusual among my own kind, could not pull me from the spell.

"You cried out in your sleep and pulled away from me. And then I saw the cut on your cheek, right here. Your arm had another slice, like you had been in a fight." As he spoke, he traced the phantom injuries, which had long since healed. I suddenly knew exactly the time he was speaking about, remembering as if it had been yesterday: It was the day Vasili was killed. Only quick action from the rest of the Royal Flight and the defensive tactics Rei had taught me had saved my own life.

Zane's voice pulled me from my thoughts. "For a moment I wanted more than anything just to take you into my arms, but you had pulled away from me once already, and I was afraid of frightening you. I told myself I hated you." His voice remained gentle despite the words, as he trailed fingers through my hair. "But it wasn't true. You weren't responsible for the fighting. You weren't able to stop it any more than I was."

"Why are you telling me this?" My voice seemed very far away. Zane spilled onto his knees, which brought him abruptly closer to me; my breath hitched sharply with surprise, but the way I was sitting kept me from jumping away.

"You didn't start this war, Danica, and neither did I," Zane stated. "It's been going on for so long it's meaningless; people fight because they don't know what else to do. People fight because their leaders fight, and then their leaders are killed, so they have more reason to go on." His hands touched mine as if he could not help but reach out. "Danica, my sister Irene is carrying a child. She was white with fear when she told me. It's an event that should bring joy... but everyone in my family just remembers an avian soldier plunging his knife into my oldest sister's swollen belly." I started to speak, but he put a finger against my lips. "No apology is necessary from you, Danica." Again the gentle caress of hands running through my hair as he explained, "I am going back to the royal hall tomorrow evening. My mother, sister and guards will not be there to argue with the Disa and me. I hope you'll be there, and that you'll listen to what she has to say. What she suggests... it might work. I'm just asking you to give the idea a chance." Giving that particular idea a chance sounded akin to giving suicide a chance, and I knew Zane saw my hesitation.

"Please, Danica," he said. "You sang to my brother of peace and hope. I can't believe that you aren't as desperate for those things as I am. Just... try." Somehow, I found myself nodding. "I will try," I answered finally, struggling not to think of how Zane knew the details of those long hours on the battlefield. He ignored my uncertainty.

"Thank you." He stepped forward so suddenly, his lips a brief, gossamer touch on my cheek, that I let out an unintended cry.

That shout, louder than our hushed voices, brought two of the Royal Flight instantly into the room.

Zane tensed, backing away from me as well as from my guards, and I could see his garnet eyes flashing as they looked for a way out. Insanely, I stepped between Zane and the Royal Flight, though Rei moved forward as if to stop me.

"There's no trouble here," I assured him, my gaze cool with the warning not to challenge me on this point. "I was just about to escort Zane out, anyway." I felt Zane's tension lessen, but even so, the feel of him behind me made the feathers on the back of my neck rise.

"Zane?" I prompted, praying silently that he would not cause trouble now.

"Thank you for speaking with me at such a late hour, Danica," Zane answered smoothly, his voice as polished as my own, betraying none of the emotion of moments ago. However, his movements were cool and languid, almost lazy  -  dangerous. Everyone who had seen serpiente fight knew that they could strike as quickly as the snakes that were their second forms. They appeared so graceful and slow that you felt like you should have eternity to move, but you never did.

He was prepared to fight. Despite any noble words he might have said to his sister before she came to the Hawk's Keep, if the Royal Flight attacked him, he would fight back.

The posture almost made me refuse when he offered his arm, but his eyes still held a glimmer of hope, begging me to help him keep this from becoming a battle, so I swallowed my fear and forced myself to accept.

The guard on my side stepped back to allow us to pass, but Zane had to shoulder past Rei on his way out; the crow directed at Zane a look that would have wilted most enemies in their tracks. Instead, Zane caught Rei's glare, wrapped an arm around my waist and kissed me again.

I was too shocked at first to respond. In the time it took me to blink and Rei to stride forward with murder in his eyes, Zane had already stepped back, his gaze turning from Rei to me as he nodded a polite good evening, changed shape and disappeared. Rei scanned the area around us as he demanded of me, "Are you all right?"

"He simply wanted to talk about tomorrow's discussion with the Disa," I answered honestly. "He was perfectly polite."

Rei looked skeptical, and the coolness in his tone as he asked, "Really?" reminded me that what he had seen had most certainly not been "perfectly polite."

"He was perfectly polite until you provoked him," I amended, voice hard.

"I see," Rei said, and this time the unspoken question in his words came through to me and my cheeks colored.

I turned on my heel to return to my room; childhood friend or no, I did not need to justify myself to my guard, and on this subject I would not do so. As I walked into my room, I heard Rei say, "Inform the Tuuli Thea. Shardae!" he called, following me m. "Danica, wait. Please. I just did one of the stupidest things I have ever done: I intentionally got into a glaring match with a serpiente. And during those moments, he could have killed you. Do you understand? You might have seen a show of serpiente bravado from a fellow monarch trying to unnerve your guards. I saw him grabbing you, cobra fangs practically brushing against your skin, as I stood there unable to move."

I sighed, exhausted from the events of the day, frightened by how they were progressing and not willing to fight. "Rei..." I hugged him gently, a gesture too familiar for any avian setting, which made Rei tense for a moment before he hugged me back. It was nice to be in his arms and to abandon for a moment the reserve I was always expected to maintain. "Thank you for watching out for me."

"Danica  -  "

"I'm sorry I scared you," I continued, before Rei could finish whatever he was about to say. "But this time, you needn't worry about what happened. No threats passed between us  -  just talk. Two of us trying to figure out how to end this stupid war." Rei nodded. "Danica, I  -  "

He broke off, stepping away from me and falling back into the formal warrior's posture as my mother entered, golden eyes cold as ice.

"Shardae, explain," she said shortly.

I resisted the desire to sigh in annoyance. "Mother, may we discuss this tomorrow? I would like some sleep before I need to speak to the Mistari Disa again."

"I would like to know what Zane Cobriana was doing in your private chambers," the Tuuli Thea responded.

"He came to talk," I answered, trying not to sound petulant when I was so exhausted that I was probably swaying on my feet. "He was worried that if we did not communicate first, the meeting with the Mistari Disa would go the same way tomorrow as it did tonight."

"And well he should be. It was an atrocious suggestion then, and it will still be tomorrow."

"Are you so certain it can't work?"

My mother's eyes widened, and she lapsed into the informal in her shock. "Danica, you can't seriously be considering..." She trailed off. "It's impossible, and I won't allow it."

"I will be Tuuli Thea of my own right in a few weeks," I responded. "You don't need to allow me anything."

"For the moment, I do," she argued. With a glance at my guards, she ordered,

"Andreios, get your flight together, and send the Mistari Disa our apologies. We will be leaving tonight."

"Mother!"

"Shardae, there will be no discussion on this point," she said sharply. "We are bringing you home if I need to have the Royal Flight hold you by your pinfeathers the entire way."

"What about the serpiente?" I protested. "We should at least  -  "

"Shardae, obey me!" To that final tone there was to be no argument. My head lowered so she would not see the fury on my face, I forced out the words,

"Yes, Mother."

Chapter 6

THOUGH I WAS INFURIATED BY THEIR refusal to listen to anything, I understood the response my mother and guards had given to the Mistari's proposal. In avian society, a young woman was often promised to her future alistair shortly after birth. The two grew up together, he raised to be a guide and protector, and she raised to trust him implicitly. He was expected to walk the fine line of an avian gentleman, respecting her strength and sheltering her from the harshest of her world at the same time. Vasili had been the son of two of the Ravens. By virtue of his position as my alistair, I was closer to him than any of my family or friends.

Trying not to think of what I could not change, for the next fortnight I threw myself into preparing for the position I would soon officially assume as Tuuli Thea. Those duties took up most of my hours, and when they lessened, I trained with the Royal Flight. My mother had never approved of my being taught to fight, but neither had she approved of my walking the fields where the skills were necessary. Rei had long ago insisted that I learn some fighting skills, and now that I was restricted to the Keep, I used those lessons as an excuse to work off excess energy. Naturally, I could never best his people, but my skills were extensive enough to startle many members of the Royal Flight.

Half a month after our retreat from the Mistari, I was approached by a young girl no more than sixteen. She was slender and well built, and the fire in her eyes told me the question she was going to ask before she asked it.

"Shardae?" she greeted me, with the half-curtsy that was appropriate here. I nodded in acknowledgment. "My name is Erica Silvermead. I spoke to the Tuuli Thea earlier today, and she referred me to you. If there is a place available, milady, I wish permission to join the Royal Flight."

I gazed at the girl in resignation, not surprise. She was young, but no younger than so many of our warriors were when they began  -  no younger than so many of our warriors were when they died.

"Do you have any training?" I asked.

"Some, milady," the girl responded. As we spoke, I sized her up. Whatever training she had had was not formal, or she would have been standing at a soldier's ready, left hand gripping right wrist. "My brother taught me what he could." The unspoken words before he died hung at the end of that sentence.

"Follow me, and you may present yourself to the Royal Flight for consideration," I said, though I suspected this girl was of a lower class than the Royal Flight usually accepted. Erica was a sparrow, a breed almost never admitted to the Royal Flight, since both their human and avian forms had a tendency to be light and unsuited to fighting. However, Andreios would make the final decision based on her abilities. If he thought her an ill fit for his elite group, there might still be room for her among one of the other flights. Changing into my hawk form, I led the way down through the open circle in the floor and to the ground level, where the Royal Flight was currently sparring without weapons

-  a form of fighting that was an avian soldier's worst nightmare. My kind had the advantage of flight. If we were lucky, a battle could be finished with a volley of arrows shot from above. However, a clipped wing or lost bow could bring a soldier to the ground, where he would instantly be surrounded by an enemy who had every advantage. Rei noticed my entrance and approached. I saw him take in the girl at my side. "Are you looking for me, Shardae?" he asked.

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