Hawksong Page 6

"If there is space to tram her, Erica Silvermead would like consideration to join the Royal Flight."

Rei's brows tensed slightly, as if he was trying not to frown. "Silvermead... I believe I met your brother once, Lady Erica."

She nodded, keeping her head down a moment to compose herself. "You saved his life, nearly five years ago; he spoke of it often. I'm surprised you remember."

"He is quite a soldier, if I recall," Rei mused.

"He was," Erica amended softly.

"Ah." Rei nodded, bringing the conversation back into safe, neutral territory. "Come this way, and we'll see what kind of fighter you are, Silvermead." He tossed her a blunted practice blade that, while not sharp enough to cut flesh, could cause plenty of bruises; I had earned enough of those myself during Rei's training sessions.

Erica's eyes lit up and she barely managed to avoid grinning.

"Try not to look so gleeful," Rei chastised lightly. "Remember your goal, Erica: to protect your Tuuli Thea and her heirs, at the cost of your own life if necessary. You are a warrior. That means you will go onto a field someday soon, and you will kill another person."

Erica's gaze fell, but I could tell she was not overly daunted by the prospect of murder. Politely, she responded, "I apologize, sir, but one can hardly call serpiente people." Rei nodded, not arguing. Erica was not unusual; this was a frame of mind most avians, children and adults, held strongly. However, Rei did ask, "If I bring you into a fight, can I trust you to retreat if ordered?" Erica tried very hard to hide her annoyance at the idea, but did not succeed. "I cannot allow you in my flight if you will not leave a fight when told to do so."

"Does this flight frequently retreat, sir?" Erica asked acidly. Rei looked at me for a moment. "We are to protect Lady Nacola and her heirs," he explained, for what sounded like the hundredth time. "Frequently, that involves getting our charge off the field and out of enemy sights, and then following her. We are no good to the Tuuli Thea if we die for our pride."

"Yes, sir," Erica answered sullenly.

Her grin was gone, and her gaze was still down when Rei drew the knife from his side. Erica reacted before the blade had even fully left the sheath, and soon the two were in a flurry of attack and riposte that made my head spin in the attempt to follow. Rei was being cautious, testing his new charge, but I could tell he was using more effort to defend himself than he usually had to with novices.

To end the fight he got inside her guard and pressed the blade against her throat. Erica's blade was useless, trapped against her side.

She, however, did not admit defeat.

She passed the blade behind her back, transferring it to her left hand, and instantly it was against Rei's chest, the blade pressing just over his solar plexus.

"You're dead, Erica," Rei said.

"I'm not alone," she responded easily, slightly breathless, skin flushed with adrenaline. Rei nodded, acknowledging the point. "You have some good moves," he admitted.

"Care to try it again?"

This time he did not rebuke her grin; not waiting to recover, Erica returned her blade to her dominant hand and began the fight anew.

Rei did not check his ability in order to test hers, but while Erica did not have a chance to attack, she defended herself well.

As evening progressed, I made my way to the second-level court. The market was peppered with gossips; the court was filled with practiced scholars and speakers. Rhetoric replaced simple stories; ballads replaced the weepy tales. The serpiente's recent attempts at peace had already become legend, and the argument about what they really wanted was still going on. The idea that they had been honest was never considered.

After supper, the younger members of the court retired; had I not been heir to the Tuuli Thea, I would probably have been escorted out with the others. As it was, if I sat quietly I could hear the stories that the minstrels and scholars considered too indiscreet to share when the students were still in the room.

Rei usually came to court at about this time, mostly to call attention to me and hush the conversation when he deemed it inappropriate for his charge's ears, but tonight he was late. He sent another crow from his flight, but that young man had obviously not spent much time at court and was easily caught in the web of words all these speakers wove. As I sat silently on the edge of the court, not in my place at the center table, people forgot I was present. Soon the scene in the Mistari lands was being discussed: how Zane had kissed me  -  scandalous!  -  in full view of two of the Royal Flight  -  shocking!  -

and neither one had made a move to stop him until he was already gone. Though speculation about his motives and why the Royal Flight had reacted so slowly was a bit strong, the details were essentially correct; listening made me wonder how many of the other stories were true.

"Shardae."

I jumped at the voice behind my left shoulder, as did the guard Rei had sent to accompany me.

Rei dismissed the young guard with a displeased scowl, then simply said to me,

"Considering how early you rise in the morning, I would be remiss if I did not point out to you how late it is getting." In other words, he could not order me from the court  -  he had no authority to do that  -  but he had no intention of letting me stay to listen, either. Rei escorted me to my floor. Once, this level had housed all of my family: the Tuuli Thea, her pair bond and her sister and my own sister and brother in addition to me. Now, the empty rooms hung heavy with silence.

I bid Rei good night; then, as I had done every evening since our visit to Mistari lands, I listened to Zane's words over and over in my mind. Could he have been honest? I could not help fearing him for being the Diente, for the flames in his eyes and the fangs that were hidden but never gone from my mind. And yet I wanted so much to believe that he really wanted peace.

I slipped out of the slacks and blouse I had worn to court, and into my favorite cotton nightgown. The pale rose color always made me feel as if I was curled up in a sunrise. Small comfort, but I needed it.

Chapter 7

DREAMS SLID INTO MY MIND SO SLOWLY I had no sense of falling asleep. Nightmare chased nightmare, until finally I was ten years old, on my knees on the crimson field, with two of the Royal Flight physically restraining me so I would not run to my sister's side. They tried to be gentle, but I fought tooth and nail to get away, ignoring the chaos of battle surrounding us  -

I was dreaming, I realized. My sister had died nine years ago. Still, the smell of blood was so strong... I tried to wake up, but only succeeded in throwing myself into another lucid nightmare. I felt a serpent's blade slice into my shoulder, saw an eleven-year-old Andreios  -  armed only with the bloody dagger he had taken from his father's stillwarm body  -  throw himself at the enemy to protect my eight-year-old self. I screamed as I saw the serpent start to uncoil to retaliate; I knew Rei would carry the scars from the serpent's fangs in his skin for the rest of his life, and I could not stop myself from trying to change history.

This time, instead of being knocked out, I was struck solidly in the gut by an enemy blade, knocked down with a choked cry of pain.

Vasili caught my hand, and though his expression was usually cool and remote, distanced as the hardest warriors always got eventually, he let me see past the reserve to glimpse the affection and concern in his nearly black eyes.

I was fifteen; he was seventeen. Vasili was not the warmest companion, but as he helped me to stand  -  not berating me for my foolishness in trying to find Rei's younger sister even though we had both known from the start it was too late to help her  -  I loved him.

I knew I was dreaming, but it was so good to see him again. I had missed him so much...

And then he was twisting away, his hand going for his weapon as he pushed me behind him so that he took the knife that had been thrown at me  -

Gregory Cobriana, clenching his teeth and looking away as he died, slowly. Rei, comforting as he could. I stood up as I had not done in real life and walked away. The dream phantom called after me, pleaded with me to stay, but I could not stand that again.

And then it was Zane Cobriana before me, twin garnets pinning me in place as he said,

"Please don't scream."

Would I never wake up

?

I could never have done so in real life, but in the dream I wrenched my gaze from his and shoved him away. "What do you want?"

I demanded.

"I should think you would know that," Zane answered simply. This was absurd. I wondered bitterly when this scene would turn to pain and violence like the others had. My nightmares had visited paths like this for years, one crystal-clear dream giving way to another until the morning, but until now they had always fallen apart the instant Zane Cobriana appeared. Now that I had seen him, spoken to him, my mind had more ammunition for nocturnal torments.

Zane watched me, his expression wary.

"You don't seem dangerous enough to war rant my mother dragging me out of the Mistari camps in the middle of the night," I commented to the specter. The real Zane Cobriana terrified me, but this one was not overly intimidating. If anything, he reminded me of Vasili. He projected a mask that was numbed to pain, but beneath it he was as fragile and tired of war as only a warrior could be.

"I don't?" Zane purred, a glint of amusement now showing in his red eyes. I began to pace. If I screamed and kept screaming, would I scream aloud? Would Rei come in and wake me? Or would the dream slow like molasses, as nightmares did, until it seemed I could do nothing but choke on the silence?

"Danica, are you all right?" Zane asked, standing now, too, the skin between his eyebrows tensing with the hint of a frown.

"Is there some reason I should be?" I nearly shouted in return. Zane winced, his gaze flickering to the nearby doorway. "I just want to sleep.

I don't want to dream, because all I see then are the people I have lost. I don't want to smell the stench of death and decay and rotten blood. I don't want to hear the wet sputter of someone trying to breathe past pain. I don't want to see dying children whenever I close my eyes. But I am nearly Tuuli Thea," I said more quietly, "and once I am, that will be my entire life. War. Death. And

I do n't know how to stop it

For a brief moment the arrogance was gone from Zane's expression, and he regarded me with what almost looked like respect.

"If I knew how to grant that wish," he finally answered, voice soft, "I would have done so already, before this damn war had taken so many from me, too. Friends, lovers, family; I would have saved them all if I knew how. But if we both want peace, I can't believe that it is impossible to manage."

I caught him sizing me up, his gaze flickering down my form and up again. "Perhaps there is more to you than I see here, Danica," Zane mused aloud. "More than the stoic avian poise and emotionless reserve."

He reached up and ran his fingers through my hair, which brought him alarmingly close. His wrapping an arm around my waist brought me even closer, and then he kissed me, this time not hesitant in the face of my recoil or hurried to avoid a knife from the Royal Flight.

The sensation of his lips lingering over mine was startling; the light pressure of his body as he held me against himself was unexpected. He broke the kiss at the same time he pressed something into my hand.

"Tomorrow afternoon, Danica. I'll make sure the guards on the door are loyal and will let you in safely," Zane said, voice intense despite the fact that my mind was barely following it. I could feel myself sliding into the next dream segment, and I shrank from it, knowing the next scene would probably be a lot bloodier than this one. "We can't meet here in the open  -  your guards will kill me if they catch me  -  but I have enough control in the palace that we can make plans there... if you'll come." I nodded, closing my hand on whatever he had given me.

He brushed the back of his hand gently across my cheek and then crossed the room to my balcony doors. I had a vague picture of him spreading wing and flying away. Then I sat down to look at what Zane had pressed into my hand; before my fingers had finished uncurling, the scene changed and I was in the court, listening as Vasili debated some point I hardly understood but was willing to listen to simply for the chance to hear his smooth voice.

Chapter 8

I DID NOT ATTEND MARKET THE NEXT DAY. I was so exhausted I probably would have fallen out of my seat. By midday, however, I had been summoned from my room.

I followed the messenger up to my mother's personal balcony, the open top floor of the Hawk's Keep. There was a gentle breeze today, and my mother looked like a romantic portrait, noble and sad, but beautiful. She was dressed in raw silk, nearly white, with golden threads woven into the material around her throat, wrists and the hem of her pants.

The topic she wished to discuss was far from romance.

"Shardae," she greeted me, dismissing the sparrow with a delicate nod. "I have a meeting this afternoon with the flight leaders. This is the last assembly before your coronation, and I thought it best that you joined me." I did not have a chance to do anything but nod before my mother added, "Come, they wait." Though I was capable of putting faces to names and matching those names with the flights they commanded, I knew very few of the flight leaders personally. Most of them reported to Rei, who then spoke to my mother or me if there was a problem. Avian flights were designed to work autonomously, each having its own specialties and tactics. Rarely did all the leaders meet unless the Tuuli Thea called them to, and since the decision for me to inherit early had only been made recently, I had never joined my mother for these councils.

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