Hawksong Page 7

We descended to the second floor, where the courtiers had been cleared to make way for soldiers. At a center table sat avian men and women from all levels of society, all of whom stood upon our entrance. Beside the flight commanders, I saw weapon smiths and a few merchants who dealt in trade not discussed in the marketplace. Around that table, I saw eyes that reflected horrors of every scope. Haunted expressions met my gaze as I was introduced in turn to each defender and necessary killer. The only commander I felt at all comfortable with, Andreios, was the only one missing; the commander of the Royal Flight would converse with his queen alone. In the meantime, his flight was surrounding the Keep.

"Please, sit," my mother said. The simple words began a conference I had no wish to be at.

Karashan spoke first. "Milady, we have taken advantage of these last weeks' lull to train soldiers to replace those lost fighting the cobra's people. We have also recently received a new shipment of am'haj from Ahnmik."

The concoction of which Karashan spoke, more commonly called avian poison, was a falcon creation that my people had never been able to reproduce. Aside from occasional fatigue, it had almost no effect on my kind. However, a blade coated in it would cause almost instant death to a serpent even if the wound was minor  -  an advantage we needed against an enemy who could blend effortlessly into the shadows and who was both faster and stronger on land than our soldiers.

Many times, the Tuuli Thea had petitioned the falcons for more than poison, as they were rumored to possess magic, in addition to controlling the most deadly soldiers ever to live. The price for that aid, however, was surrendering our freedom to the falcons and accepting subjugation in exchange for victory. Like every queen before her, my mother had refused the soldiers.

However, like every queen before her, she had accepted the poison. It was the only way we had survived this long.

Karashan continued, "I believe the serpiente are feeling panicked, milady. The only incidents that have occurred since Gregory Cobriana's death have been easily put down." She paused, looking about the table, where others were nodding agreement. "We need to take advantage of this time, milady."

"I assume you have a recommendation," my mother said when it seemed Karashan was hesitant to continue.

"There is obviously serious disorder among the serpiente. I suspect that your early return from Mistari land may have interfered with their plans. Before they reorganize, I would recommend a direct attack... We won't  -  "

"No." My voice cut through Karashan's. Suddenly all eyes at the table were on me, including my mother's, which were full of disapproval at my interruption. I continued anyway. "Doesn't anyone have even the slightest hope that the reason the serpiente have not attacked is because they honestly want peace?"

I saw the answer to that question before I had even finished asking it. The other flight leaders agreed with Karashan. I saw fear in some of their eyes, but more than that I saw jaded surrender. Peace was a myth to these people. They couldn't think of any other existence but war.

There was no way to change that here, and yet I wasn't willing to let them destroy everything, either. Trying to appeal to their more rational side, I pointed out, "We have tried direct attacks before. They only bring slaughter. If we attack the serpiente in their own land, we might strike a blow, but it will be at an incredible cost." Knowing it was a painful subject for many, I reminded them, "It took half of the Ravens, a dozen of the Royal Flight and eighteen others to kill Gregory Cobriana. And in the meantime, Xavier Shardae, my brother, was killed." More than one of the commanders looked away as I spoke those words. I knew then from what flights those final eighteen had come from.

"That was on our own land. When the bodies were counted, we had two soldiers down for every one of theirs, including many of our best fighters and our prince. And you are willing to take the battle to serpiente land? Willing to lose a dozen soldiers to the archers on the palace roof before you even reach the ground? And then what do you plan, to chase the royal family through their palace?" I sighed, shaking my head. "It's suicide, and we don't have a hope of doing enough damage to end this war." Before anyone could argue, I added, "It's suicide even if they are as disorganized as Karashan believes they are. If you can't believe that the serpiente want peace, then they obviously have a plan. Attacking their heart would be walking right into it. As soon as our forces were destroyed, they would take the Keep apart."

Silence followed my words, a silence that was heavy with the weight of defeat. I didn't want to surrender; we would fight to the last sparrow before we would give up. But neither could I allow them to begin a battle that would destroy us  -  and any last hope for peace.

"Shardae, do you have another plan?" my mother asked. Another plan?

I wished I could have stayed in the Mistari lands to negotiate  -  no matter how frightening their first suggestion had been  -  but my kind was not trusting enough to allow another meeting. The only way I could speak to the serpents again would be without the knowledge of my people. Alone, I would be shot down long before I could even reach the palace to request an audience.

Stalling for time, I threw my only thoughts out. "Something less direct. Something they wouldn't predict." What wouldn't they predict? We had been warring for thousands of years, fighting like two dancers who know each other's moves without thinking. "If we want to attack them on their land, we need to know what we are attacking. But we've never even managed to get a soldier inside the palace  -  not one who returned, anyway."

"We need to do something," Karashan declared. "Soon. I would accept losing every life under my command, as well as my own, if we could deal a wound that wouldn't heal. We've always been conservative in the past, and we've always ended up exactly where we started. Isn't it time to risk a little more?" There were murmurs of agreement around the table.

In some generations in the past, the Tuuli Thea had been ruled by this group. If I didn't make a decision, the chance would be taken from me, but I was not ready to set a date for the slaughter.

"I am accepting the crown in three days," I stated. My voice was strong, and it hushed the mumbling. "Give me that time to think. In the meantime, make your plans for the attack; it will take you at least that long to organize the kind of offensive you are talking about. If by the morning after the coronation no one has come up with a better plan, I will give you the word to go."

I glanced at my mother for her reaction; for the next few days, she was still queen. I saw hesitation on her face and silently prayed that she would abide by my decision. Finally Nacola Shardae nodded. "Three days, when your Tuuli Thea gives the word." She did not mention considering other possibilities, but neither did she override my words with a command to attack now. "Karashan, the Royal Flight is needed here, so you will lead the attack. After my daughter's coronation, you will present the plans to your new Tuuli Thea for her approval."

"Yes, milady."

"Dismissed, everyone," she said briskly when no objections were raised. "Unless another method is decided upon, we will reconvene the morning after the coronation." I watched the flight leaders leave, feeling shaken. After the three days were over, this would be my life. The battle that Karashan was talking about would be madness, but I saw no way to prevent it unless I could think of an equally decisive way to end this war. When we were again alone together, my mother said, "You spoke wisely today, Danica."

"Wise words won't save people's lives if I cannot think of another plan, and I have no other plan," I answered.

The Tuuli Thea looked at me sadly for a moment. "I don't mean to hurry you, Danica," she said gently, her voice holding a rare note of affection. "But I honestly feel you are ready to take the throne, while I am long past my prime. It is a queen's faith that keeps her people alive, but mine is running out."

"You are young yet," I argued, upset by the note of finality in her tone.

"Perhaps, but some days I feel so washed away. You still have dreams, Danica. I have faith in you, and in what you can do. So does Karashan, or she would not have let you stall her plans today. She has been planning this offensive since Irene Cobriana first entered our courtyard."

I shuddered at the thought that different words might have sent us all to battle today. My mother changed the subject to lighter things. "It occurred to me while you were speaking that when you accept the position of Tuuli Thea, you might also announce your choice for alistair. It would help the morale of your people," my mother explained. I nodded, though with reluctance. This was her way of assuring herself  -  and the rest of our people  -  that the idea proposed by the Mistari queen was preposterous. "I will consider it," I allowed.

"Have you given any thought to whom you will choose?" The question was just a formality, since we both knew the answer was Andreios. His lineage was almost as pure as my own, and as leader of the Royal Flight, his loyalty was unquestioned.

"I will be able to give my decision after the ceremony," I answered, thinking how very short the next three days were likely to be.

When she did not speak for a moment, I inquired, "Is there anything else you would like to discuss?"

She shook her head. "I wish I could have given you peace," she said with a tired smile.

"Fly with grace, nestling." It had been so long since my mother had spoken to me with anything but detached civility, a queen to her subject, that hearing her speak so fondly made my throat constrict even though the words were a dismissal. "And you... Mother." After the words, I did not return to my room, but instead sequestered myself inside the library on the third floor. If I could not think of a way to reach the Cobriana peacefully, then perhaps these books of tactics and descriptions of past battles would at least help me think of something less mad than Karashan's plans.

Instead, I found a dusty copy of an ancient text written in the smooth, flowing symbols of the old language. Supposedly, the original text had been written by the brother of Alasdair, who had been the first queen of my kind.

No one could read the old language anymore, but when I absently flipped the pages, I found a few paragraphs that had writing above them  -  a translation, done by a raven named Valene. She had been a highly regarded scholar, until her quest for knowledge had led her to the serpiente. She had been exiled from the courts long ago, but apparently she had translated some of this text first.

My sister is a beautiful queen. She has seen only fifteen summers of life, but she has taken us from famine to abundance, and transformed us from a poor village of beggars to an empire to rival the falcons'. They call her the golden one. A bit later, another piece was translated.

Against my counsel, Alasdair has allowed the serpents into the city. Their reputation is not kind, and I do not like their presence inside our walls. They say they are only here to trade. My sister insists they are as human as we are, and should he trusted as we trust our own.

A few lines were translated on each of the next few pages, and then came the words I did not want to read.

In the back. She showed them only kindness. She treated them only warmly. They have nothing to gain. Trust a snake to atta ck just because a trusting back is turned. I shuddered, putting the journal aside. Was I following in my ancestor's footsteps, giving trust to a cobra despite every warning? Was I making the same mistakes, to ultimately end with the same fate?

Chapter 9

THE NEXT TWO DAYS PASSED TOO QUICKLY. Between preparation for the coronation and the looming war I felt powerless to stop, I had no time even for nerves...

for which I was grateful. Neither did I have time to formulate a plan. The morning before the coronation, I found on my bed two gifts, one from Eleanor Lyssia and one from the Aurita, a small shop run by a family of jewelry makers whose craftsmanship I favored but whose work I owned only one piece of. The family was too poor to be giving many pieces away but refused to sell anything to me at its full value. I opened the package from Eleanor Lyssia and found inside a beautiful silken dress, the quality of which amazed me. The material was so soft it seemed to flow across my hands, alive, as I held it; the color was a beautiful burgundy that complimented my golden hawk's tones perfectly. I wondered how many hours she had dedicated to the intricate feather design carefully embroidered around the waist. Surely this was the work of the master seamstress, not the young girl I knew was the apprentice?

Yet there was Eleanor's signature, discreetly woven into the hem of the dress in matching burgundy thread.

The jewelry sent by the Aurita matched the dress beautifully. A fine gold chain suspended a garnet above the hollow of my throat; wisps of gold little wider than threads hung below the stone and made my skin seem to glisten.

The only other piece I owned from the Aurita was a delicate handflower, with similar fine gold chains trailing from a ring on my middle finger and across the back of my hand to a bracelet of twisted gold. The ring had been inset with a garnet that would match this, and as I recalled it, I decided I would wear that as well  -  if I could remember where I had put it.

Carefully, I removed the dress and laid it across the foot of my bed. The delicate necklace I placed on the nightstand nearby, and then I went to riffle through my jewelry box to find the handflower.

When I could not find it there, I checked my nightstand and the trunk that sat at the foot of my bed. Neither surface held the elusive handflower, but a brief search under the bed revealed something that glinted in the faint light.

I reached for it and then frowned as I realized it was silver, not gold. As I pulled the ring into the light, it took me several long moments to realize what it was... and several more moments to convince myself I was right.

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